FOR MEMBERS

Herbal tea and sick leave: An American’s ode to the German attitude towards health

Herbal tea and sick leave: An American’s ode to the German attitude towards health
A man with a fever drinks an 'Erkältungstee', or tea for colds. Photo: DPA
The Local's editor Rachel Stern writes about how she learned to embrace the German attitude towards health - by seeing first hand how society handles sickness.

Groggily opening my eyes after general anesthesia at a Berlin hospital, I was greeted by a gentle nurse’s voice. “Would you like a Kräutertee (herbal tea)?” she asked.

I slowly sipped it, smiling while thinking how, if I were in my native US, “herbal tea” would have likely been replaced by “more morphine”.

(article continues below)

See also on The Local:

The warm beverage, favoured by many Germans to treat everything from the common cold to post-surgical drowsiness, has to me become analogous to attitudes here towards health and well-being. There’s not a quick plow-through and get-back-on-your-feet mentality, but a steadfast (and societally accepted) rationale for recuperation. 

Whatever the severity of the illness, Germans usually see taking time off work to fully recover, however long that may be, as a necessity and not a luxury. 

READ ALSO: Working in Germany: The 10 rules you need to know if you fall ill

Six weeks and then some

Sechs Wochen (Six weeks)?” I echoed the doctor before my foot surgery, when he suggested the amount of time I should be krankgeschrieben, or given sick leave. I had not envisioned taking any time (other than the day of the operation itself) as surely I would still be able to sit at a desk afterwards, crutches cast to the side.

Despite having lived in Germany for seven years at that point, I realized how much my “get up and get on with things” American attitude towards sick leave (or lack there of) was still present. As of 2018, the average US worker took 2.5 days of sick leave, compared to 18.5 in Germany, according to the country's umbrella organization of public health insurance

In the US – where there is no legally mandated paid leave for illness – many employees cite economic reasons for showing up at work with a flu, boxes of tissues dotting their desks. Not only do they fear monetary losses, but also that their job could be at stake if they aren't viewed as “irreplaceable”.

Most Germans wouldn't think so highly of their colleagues for showing up to work sick. Photo: DPA

And if employees must miss work, as was the case of a former colleague in San Francisco with a broken arm, they often dig into already scarce vacation days.

Yet in Germany, where workers receive up to six weeks fully paid sick leave per year – and additional weeks at 70 percent pay – it’s seen as a taboo to show up to work unwell and likely infect your colleagues. Many managers encourage their employees to rest and recuperate until they're ready to perform at 100 percent again.

READ ALSO: What we could all learn from the German attitude to sickness

Furthermore, if you fall ill during vacation time (which is legally a minimum of 20 days for employees, but often includes one to two additional weeks), many companies allow you to claim this time back. 

Any need to recover is due cause for taking time off, with mental health issues such as depression or burn-out now the third most common reason for Krankenstand (sick leave) in Germany.
 
While some argue that this is due to workplace conditions in Germany becoming more demanding and stressful, others say there is simply more awareness and openness to viewing mental health as just as vital as physical health. 
 

 No pride in presenteeism

In short: the German idea of time off when you need it, whether for warding off a fever, spending precious time with a new child or hibernating in Mallorca, is as alive and well as it encourages people to be as a result of it. 

This explains why, unlike for many in the US, there’s no pride in “presenteeism” – the idea of working while sick to prove that you’re a diligent worker, both to yourself and others. Germans might have another word for it: foolish.

While I didn’t take a full six weeks away from the office, I realized I didn’t need to, ahem, get my foot in the door right away. Rather I could leave it where it belonged for awhile – propped on a pillow while I drank yet another cup of tea.


Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.