Social Matters in Germany

No more Permanent Standby – Availability after Official Hours

Bundesarbeitsministerin Ursula von der Leyen fordert einen Stopp der E-Mail-Flut nach Dienstschluss; Foto: Dirk Vorderstraße, Creative Commons (CC BY 3.0)Psychologists say that always having to be available for your company on your Smart phone is making more and more employees sick. A few German firms have decided to tackle the problem.

The Smart phone makes sure you have no “time off” anymore; © Fotowerk – Fotolia.com

The Smart phone makes sure you have no “time off” anymore; © Fotowerk – Fotolia.com

It was one hour after knocking off from work on Friday evening when the call came. Maybe Martina D. - not a manager, just a regular staffer - should not have answered it, but that would have been somehow a little rude. It was her boss on the phone telling her that her project results were not up to scratch. Half an hour later he sent her an e-mail, telling her to come to his office first thing on Monday morning. From that moment on Martina D. just could not stop thinking about it, she lost sleep and her weekend was well and truly ruined.

The case may well be somewhat contrived, but it is in fact fairly exemplary of what is going on in the working world today. According to a survey carried out before the 2011 Christmas holidays by the Bitcom IT Association 71 per cent of the employees asked said they could be contacted either by phone or e-mail even on the actual holidays themselves. There are other surveys claiming that between 27 and 88 per cent of all gainfully employed people are permanently available in the evenings and at the weekends. In general women are easier to contact - according to Bitcom three-quarters of all female employees are on permanent standby compared to two-thirds of male employees. “It seems to be the done thing in our society these days to be permanently available,” says industrial psychologist, Prof. Dr. Dieter Zapf, from the University of Frankfurt, “Furthermore the younger generation has a much stronger affinity to the Smart phone, young people use them all the time and are always available privately for friends and family.”

Why do company employees subject themselves to this?

For many people in our society it has become the norm for them to be available for their bosses at any time; © Colourbox.com; © Colourbox.comIn our globalised world it has become an absolute must to be permanently available - especially if a company wants be successful on an international level. This permanent availability via phone or computer may well make sense for managers, but why does the everyday, normal employee subject himself to such stress? It seems particularly absurd if one takes into account the fact that they are not officially obliged to be available after leaving their place of work – not even if their phone is a company phone.

“If being available after work is absolutely necessary for the job they do, then they should have it confirmed in writing and they should document all the extra work they do,” advises Volker Lehmann, a specialist attorney for industrial law in Munich, “otherwise they will have a hard time convincing the company that this additional work is to be classed as overtime.”

Good for one’s ego, bad for one’s health

A company’s employees are not legally bound to be available after finishing work or to reacting to e-mails, but in reality the situation looks very different; © fotogestoeber - Fotolia.comThis additional stress is further exacerbated by the fact that the extra work involved goes unpaid. One reason however that makes being available so chic is that some people need a Smart phone for their egos. “It emphasises their importance when the boss calls them outside working hours. For many it boosts their self-esteem,” explains Dieter Zapf. Not everybody however reacts in the same way to the stress caused by having to be available all the time, nevertheless the industrial psychologists warns of the “damaging effects” caused by not switching off from work. Body and mind become more and more exhausted if they are not able to recuperate. The symptoms range from sleeping disorders to burn-out syndrome. Then there are the social aspects - “A husband and father talking on his mobile every half hour obviously provokes conflict in his family,” says Zapf.

Up to now however many companies have not really taken the problem seriously, the reason being, among other things, that the employees themselves have not voiced any complaints. At the same time however between 2004 and 2011 the number of days absent from work rose to a figure that was 14 times as high - according to a survey by the German Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists. For the companies this means a loss in production that is not to be underestimated.

“Individual employees mostly have a difficult time protesting against the boss’s orders,” explains labour law specialist Lehmann. “In Germany however the workers’ councils are allowed to have a say when it comes to working hours and health/safety standards. This means that a dedicated shop steward can take action if a boss makes unreasonable demands on his employees - even legal action, if necessary.”

Workers’ council protects the interests of 1,100 Volkswagen employees

The German Federal Minister of Labour, Ursula von der Leyen, calls for a stop to people being bombarded with e-mails after they have finished work; Photo: Dirk Vorderstraße, Creative Commons (CC BY 3.0)The awareness of just how important it is not to be disturbed in your leisure time is however growing very slowly. In this connection at the end of 2011 a decisive victory was nevertheless gained by the workers’ council at Volkswagen - the German car manufacturer. An agreement was signed stating that no e-mails are to be forwarded anymore to company Blackberries 30 minutes after leaving work; furthermore they can only be read 30 minutes before starting work. Although the new regulation does not apply to managerial positions, it still means that over 1,100 workers/staff members are guaranteed a relaxing evening without being bothered by any work-related e-mails.

A few other companies such as BMW, Puma, E.on, Deutsche Telekom and Bayer have now also jumped on the bandwagon. For example, at E.on no business e-mail contact is allowed 20 minutes after finishing work, whereas Deutsche Telekom has demanded more self-discipline from its workforce. According to a declaration of commitment issued by the telecommunications company its workforce is not to be contacted in its leisure time, except in emergency situations.

The latest move was made in June 2012 by the German Federal Minister of Labour, Ursula von der Leyen. She said that companies should define exactly when and which staff members have to be available for contact, in order to protect them from being overburdened with work - in line with industrial health and safety standards. “Phones off during time off,” was the way the labour minister put it.

Eva Zimmerhof
is a freelance science journalist in Munich and Freising.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
January 2013

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