Where has a better work culture? - Germany or the U.S.

Work balance and holiday vacation rights are compared in Germany and the U.S. as Mreike Graepel and Sheila Langan, who live in these different parts of the world describe their working culture.

Where has a better work culture? - Germany or the U.S.

It’s renowned for its efficiency but Germany also takes work balance seriously, says Mreike Graepel.

When we were considering moving from Cork to my native Germany, my (Irish) husband prepared for a job interview as an engineer.

“Just so you know, Mareike,” he said firmly, with a determined look on his face, “I will be very insistent on the amount of holidays during any negotiation — I tell you, I am not going home with less than 20. Full stop.”

Gently, I (who had worked in Ireland for years at that stage) put my hand on his arm and softly corrected him: “Honey, you mean, you won’t be going home with less than 30 days’ holidays.”

The look of astonishment he gave me I will never forget.

Germany is a good place to work when it comes to holidays and average working hours in a week are usually between 37.5 and 40. The unions are very powerful in most areas, and work councils usually have a strong say in keeping contract agreements in the interest of the employees. (The occasional black sheep also exists, of course.)

Years ago, the work council’s personnel would walk through the offices of electronic giant Sharp in Hamburg at a certain time to ensure the people actually switched their PCs off and went home.

My husband now works for ThyssenKrupp, which has more than 155.000 staff worldwide, and all rules are clear and strict: For example, if you stay at work longer than 10 hours without a (lunch) break you are no longer insured at your workplace. Therefore you go home and get rest. Six hours without a break can mean a deduction of overtime off your timesheet, like it or not. Smaller companies might stretch the rules a bit, but so might the employees. It’s often a case of give and take, even in otherwise very law-abiding Germany.

The law that our labour agreements are based on was first published in 1903. Holidays are called “recreational holidays” over here, and for every day you work you “earn” — depending on the field you work in — a certain amount of time off. Hence, employees get around 30 days off, placing Germany quite high on the list compared to international standards.

Also when it comes to the equivalent of ‘bank holidays’ our provision is generous too with up to 10 days off a year. In Germany however, bank or church holidays don’t shift to the following Monday. They are ‘on that day’ events - so if days like All Saints or the national holiday on October 3 happen to be a Sunday, tough luck.

Certain bank holidays are always Thursdays (Corpus Christi, Ascension Day) or Mondays (Whit Monday) - which usually get used for long weekend breaks. The working day between those Thursdays and the weekend is commonly known as “bridge day” and most people try to take at least one of those.

Friends of ours in the States only get 10 days off work in the whole year— that’s unimaginable in Germany. The publisher of the newspapers I work for wants to introduce a six-day week, thus creating a one-day-weekend — but it is unlikely he will get his wish due to strong resistance by unionised staff.

Here, a certain amount of holidays usually have to be taken before the first quarter of the following year is over— or the workers lose their right to claim them.

More companies find ways around the holiday laws nowadays and they outsource certain tasks to avoid complications with their own staff who are likely supported by a union.

Noticeably, formerly safe media jobs and creative positions in advertising companies are being taken up by a mixture of regular staff and outsourced workers, and very often —especially in PR — work and leisure can blend into each other subtlely like happens in the US.

Big agencies create such homely offices, that they hope workers don’t really need to go home.

So is this the beginning of Germany becoming more like US companies? I’m not sure .

In the US, the latest HR concept is offering unlimited holidays once your line manager agrees. While that may lead to people in the US taking little or no holidays, it could work out differently in German work culture.

Dr Sascha Armutat, who leads a research study for human resources in Düsseldorf, has said: “Unlimited holidays is based on target-orientated work and trust-based office hours - both of which are already happening to a degree in many German companies. Performance gets uncoupled from the actual time one has to be present in the office.”

To me, in general that is a good idea - the forementioned ‘give and take’ concept could work out in Germany as trust and target-driven working is embedded in the German workplace.

But be aware that here, family time and family politics is a major issue during every election. The then federal minister for jobs and labour, Ursula von der Leyen, put it like this: “Smartphones should be switched off after office hours, no emails should be checked whilst playing with your children.”

Now that she is federal minister of defence, I wonder if she switches her phone off?

  • Mareike Graepel is Property Editor at the Recklinghäuser Zeitung in Nordrhein-Westfalen in Germany.

It may have invented the fun workplace but US workers don’t have holiday rights, says Sheila Langan.

Fun and quirky workplace perks like unlimited snacks, booze cart Fridays, company retreats, nap rooms, and fireman poles between floors (yes, this exists at the Google offices in New York) are all fine and dandy.

But how does corporate culture in the U.S. compare to the rest of the world when it comes to vacation? Not too favorably.

"The United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time and is one of only a few rich countries that does not require employers to offer at least some paid holidays,” a 2013 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC noted.

In fact, the U.S. workforce forfeits $52.4 billion dollars annually in time off that goes unused.]

Punishing hours with limited time off is the norm across a range of industries in America, from fashion to finance, particularly for younger people just starting out in the work force and eager to prove themselves.

In the U.S., 10 vacation days is average, with guaranteed days off increasing incrementally with years of experience. In comparison, most European countries legally mandate at least 20 days of paid vacation for people with full-time jobs.

See why your company wants to give you unlimited vacation

And unlike employees in Ireland, who typically have bank holidays to look forward to as built-in days of rest, for workers in America national holidays are no guarantee of a day off.

Are the lack of standards and regulations to blame, or does the issue go deeper?

“There’s a tacit shaming culture around taking time off,” said Roger, 27, who used to work for a now defunct Seattle e-commerce start-up but now does freelance. In the eight months he worked at the 20-person company, he took only Christmas, New Years and Thanksgiving off.

“The company culture made it appear as if there had to be a legitimate reason for taking a day – such as official holidays or doctor appointments,” he said. “During the first six months that I worked there, I can’t recall anyone taking a vacation, except for one person whose sister was getting married. She took a long weekend.”

The same sort of tacit understanding can often apply to hours worked, as well.

Katia, 25, from New Jersey, has been working at a 100-employee independent research firm for the past two years.

“I care about my job a lot, but we’re not exactly saving the world. Is it so bad that I want to leave at what’s supposed to be the end of the work day, when I’m not getting paid to stay any later?” she asked.

However, she also expressed anxiety that her attempt at maintaining a reasonable work-life balance could work against her when a higher-level position opens up within the company, or if she needs to secure a recommendation from a superior.

“I’m worried that wanting to have some sort of a work-life balance could work against me in the long run, even it makes me happier in the day-to-day,” she said.

But the numbers say otherwise. A 2014 study by the U.S. Travel Association, which found that American workers are taking less and less paid vacation (on average, 16 days in 2013 as compared to 20.3 days in 2000), also noted that employees who didn’t use 11 to 15 of their allotted days off were less likely to get a raise or a bonus than those who used all of their vacation days.

The study also concluded, unsurprisingly, that employees who left most of their vacation days unused were significantly more stressed than colleagues who availed of all of their paid leave.

Legal requirements for employee leave, such as those common in Europe, could be one solution to America’s vacation deficit, but the latest trend is veering in a very different direction.

Rather than a set number of days off, employees at companies like LinkedIn, Netflix, Evernote and even the accounting giant Grant Thornton offer unlimited vacation days.

While this might sound like a dream come true to someone guaranteed only 10 days of paid leave each year, those who work under this policy say it often has the opposite effect – particularly since it absolves the company of any liability for a minimum number of vacation days taken.

The crowd-funding site Kickstarter, which employs a team of 118 in New York, announced in September that it was doing away with its unlimited vacation policy in exchange for a maximum of 25 days a year.

“It’s always been important to us to ensure that our team is able to enjoy a quality work/life balance,” a Kickstarter spokesperson told BuzzFeed. “What we found was that by setting specific parameters around the number of days, there was no question about how much time was appropriate to take from work to engage in personal, creative, and family activities.”

See unlimited vacation might be bad for workers

Jake, 32, who now works at a start-up in Brooklyn but was previously “one of the cogs in the machine” of a much larger tech company, agrees. “It’s basically workplace psychological warfare,” he said.

“To be cool with taking unlimited vacation, you need to have absolute faith that when you’re working, you’re proving your value to the company.”

Sheila Langan is an editor and writer for IrishCentral.com, based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SheiLangan

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