Bringing positivity to German workplaces

Randall Birnberg is a positive psychology coach who's trying to bring the science of happiness to German workplaces. In an interview for JobTalk, he explains how he came across his calling – and how Germans have responded.

Bringing positivity to German workplaces
Photo: Randall Birnberg

Seven years ago, Chicago native Birnberg was working as an English teacher in Aachen, going into companies to teach groups of employees.

He soon saw that Germany had a big problem: people weren't happy at work.

That's a serious setback for a country that prides itself on its strong economy, as happiness among employees can be a big boost not only to the working environment, but also the bottom line.

“My biggest challenge is to convince managers that this stuff works, with the scientific story,” Birnberg explains.

“In German culture, they love stats, where it was happening, who was doing it, the numbers behind it. It's totally the opposite of something esoteric or far-out – these are scientifically proven tools and methods for better working conditions.”

Birnberg says that positive psychology methods can help workers become 35 percent more productive and reduce absenteeism by 50 percent.

Even so, this is often a tough sell to managers, who are often relatively happy with the way things are going.

“Germans are a very productive, efficient, get-things-done-on-time society,” he says. “The average person works 9.8 hours per day. If the job needs to be done, they'll stay there till seven – not like countries where they watch the clock.”

'War Grandchildren'

But behind that strong work ethic and efficiency lies a habit of not addressing things that might be holding workers back from even greater achievements.

Birnberg explains that many German managers today are the children of people born during the Second World War – so-called Kriegsenkelkinder (War Grandchildren), born between 1958 and 1975.

That makes for a triple-pronged set of psychological blocks which they learned from their parents, whose own parents remembered the hardship of the First World War and the Depression as well as sharing in the trauma of the Nazi dictatorship and military defeat.

This generation, the Kriegskinder (War Children) – born between 1938 and 1945 – learned from their parents not to look back at the past (too painful), not to examine their own feelings (too much guilt) and above all to keep pushing forward and building up the new Germany.

“When people of the second generation came home to their parents, those war children, they didn't say, 'good job on your homework',” Birnberg explains.

“They would say, 'you need your homework, you need your education. Why didn't you get a one [the highest mark in the German system]?'

“Now they're running German companies, they didn't learn from their parents how to get praise, recognition, compassion.”

Emotional intelligence

It can be especially hard to teach those managers to employ positive psychology in their relationships with their employees because they've been brought up to expect people to just get on with things.

“Managers can take it as a personal attack,” Birnberg says. “They say, what am I doing wrong?”

He uses the example of an employee going through a spell of arriving at work late.

A German manager would be likely to sit him down and simply tell him to stop the unwanted behaviour.

“There's no question that maybe Jack has an issue. Maybe his wife has been ill and he has to take the kid to school this morning,” says Birnberg.

“I say, how about 'Jack, we love what you've been doing at the company, you've been here 20 years, you do good work. You've been coming in late – what can we do to help you with that?'

“That's not only compassion, that's just good business.”

Steps to success

Birnberg suggests that managers think about two simple ways to improve their relationships with employees.

The first is simply empathizing more with employees' problems – “put yourself in their shoes”.

And the second is showing more appreciation of employees' work more regularly.

“Get rid of the once-a-year review, the Mitarbeitergespräch. You need regular praise, give more appreciation and acknowledgement,” Birnberg says.

As for employees, one of the most important routes to happiness can actually be expressing gratitude.

“First thing when you get to work, instead of reading any emails, write three emails thanking somebody for something that happened the day before.”

The second top tip is just getting away from the desk and going to eat lunch together with other people – something that can provide a welcome break or a high point to the day.

And lastly, it's important when working to keep a list of things you've accomplished. Birnberg suggests writing three things down before leaving each evening “so they can leave the office going, 'today was a good day'”.

Expats have it easy

That might all be true for German workers and managers – but what about expats?

Birnberg suggests that they actually have it easy because they're almost forced into a positive-psychology way of thinking.

“The crux of what I coach is, wherever you put your focus is what grows.

“This is not rocket science: if you want to buy a particular car, you start seeing that car everywhere. If your wife wants to get pregnant, she sees kids everywhere.”

Being nudged into focusing on getting the most out of their experience living abroad can mean that expats simply spend more time and money on the good things in life.

“Most expats don't spend their money on material things, they spend it on experiences,” Birnberg says. “Studies show that that makes you happier.”

Of course it helps that some expats might have some of the heavier burdens that preoccupy many people – like a place to live or a car – taken off their shoulders altogether by their employer.

But that doesn't mean that others can't use the same methods.

"I have a mission, and my German girlfriend is behind me, she's like, we have to change the culture here, we have to tell people, you've got it made, look at what you've got," says Birnberg – before wishing The Local an excellent rest of the day.



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7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.