Work and Leisure Are the Germans holiday world champions?

Goal: switching off
Goal: switching off | Photo (detail): © Jacek Chabraszewski

A humming economy and at the same time plenty of holiday time. “How do the Germans manage it?” ask many outsiders. Let’s take a closer look.

John Bloggs is paragon. The thirty-year-old Bloggs works in a medium-sized company located in Berlin that produces car parts. The company is highly successful, the employees highly motivated; they work much more efficiently than the international competition. John is particularly hardworking, yet still has enough time for his hobby. Because with thirty day holidays a year he can not only travel for weeks through foreign countries, but also gain the necessary distance from work and relax.

Please excuse us, dear reader, that we just told you a little fib: John Bloggs is fictitious. Still, Germans are certainly economically successful and they enjoy the reputation of having a lot of vacation time. It might be this that quickly leads people to the conclusion that Germans must obviously be the world champions in efficiency when, in spite of all the work, they can afford all those holidays.

Multiple factors

This inference, however, falls short of the truth in many respects. Firstly, the success of a national economy depends on various factors – for instance, export orientation, industrial tradition and research. And secondly, although the Germans have in fact a lot of holiday time compared, say, to Koreans, in comparison to other Europeans they fall within the average. Then too we have to distinguish between entitlement to vacation time and actual vacations taken. The former is regulated in Germany by the federal law. According to this, every employee who works a five-day week has a right to a minimum holiday time equivalent to twenty working days. In addition, depending upon which German state he lives in, he is entitled to thirteen days more holiday time. With this minimum of twenty-nine guaranteed days of vacation, Germany is by no means at the top of the list, and clearly behind countries such as Austria (38), Poland (37), France (36) and Finland (35). Asian countries such as Taiwan (28) and Indonesia (26) have also moved closer to the Germany minimum entitlement.

All this comparing, however, is significant only up to a point: in many industrial states vacation days are also regulated by labour agreements that set standards higher than the legal minimum requirement. Moreover, according to one study, the Germans abstain from taking advantage of all their available holiday time, and also work comparatively many overtime hours on their working days. In short, the Germans are not the holiday world champions they are sometimes made out to be. Even less is it possible to draw an inference on the basis of these figures about their work efficiency.

By no means a given

From today’s view the entitlement to holidays is a given in Germany, but this was not always so. “Towards the end of the nineteenth century employees in individual companies were given two, three, at the most six days vacation – per year!” reports Henrik Müller, long-time editor at the service workers union ver.di. The first collectively bargained holiday arrangement came about in 1903, according to Müller. “In Stuttgart and Thuringia the Central Association of German Brewery Workers fought successfully for three free days a year.”

In the Weimar period then the trade unions became the driving force in the struggle for more paid holiday leave. “In Germany it often works like this: the trade unions demand something, push it through at individual companies, then in the industry – and only then a law ensues”, says Müller. “In 1963 a uniform Federal Law on Vacations was enacted, which guaranteed all employees a minimum vacation of three weeks.” In 1975 almost half of all employees were entitled to a four-week, collectively agreed holiday. Today the standard is six weeks in nearly all collectively negotiated industries and companies, says the trade unionist.

In addition to collectively agreed regulations, the so-called business agreements also play an important role. “On the subject of vacations, works councils have a right of co-determination”, explains Müller, “One example is the so-called ‘VW holiday’ at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg.” Because Volkswagen has tens of thousands of employees, these company vacations are relevant even for the travel business.

SEPARATE WORK AND LEISURE

Today you can hardly find anyone who disputes that an adequate amount of vacation for employees is indispensable. “Holidays activate processes of physical and mental recovery”, says the occupational and organizational psychologist Vladislav Rivkin, who has done work on the subject at the Leibniz Institute for Occupational Research at the Technical University of Dortmund. “It’s important on vacation to switch work off”, he says. Scientists call this “psychological detachment”: only people who can separate work and leisure can protect themselves from stress at work. Several weeks of holidays, however, do not necessarily mean more rest, according to Rivkin. “Important is that you really can switch off, by, for example, refraining from checking work e-mails and making professional phone call while on vacation.”

Many changes

In future, thinks Rivkin, much will change about holidays. This is mainly because of increasing digitalization of the workplace and jobs. Digitalization changes the place and the time of work, and hence also vacation requirements. Rivkin cites an example: “If I work in a home office and parallel to this look after my children, then I don’t necessarily have to take leave if my child falls ill.” Telework may not be possible in all kinds of work, he says, for instance, not in manufacturing; but all the same digitalization contributes to the flexibility of many working conditions. “Of course there will always be the several weeks annual vacation, but also the tendency to more and more short vacation periods.”