Myth-busting: Do Germans really have a perfect work-life balance?

It's common to hear that Germans are great at switching off once their working hours are done, but according to a new survey, this may not be entirely true.

A woman works from home in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg
A woman works from home in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

If you’ve ever tried to call the tax office at 3pm on a Friday afternoon, you’ll know from personal experience that Germans love a Feierabend (evening off). 

Particularly for people from the US, who normally get around 10 paid days off a year, the working conditions in Germany are something to celebrate. Not only do Germans get a minimum of 24 days off work, they also get generous maternity and paternity cover and a myriad of public holidays to boot. 

But a new report suggests that the work-life balance isn’t necessarily all its cracked up to be, pouring cold water on the idea of the well-rounded German lifestyle. 

The survey commissioned by Novotel surveyed around 5,000 adults across Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Poland to investigate their habits and working schedules. Surprisingly enough, it found that the Germans have the worst work-life balance of all four countries, with 58 percent work and only 42 percent leisure time.

In comparison, British people reported devoting 55 percent of their time to work and 45 percent to their private lives, while the lucky Poles have managed to achieve a perfect 50/50 split.

Feierabend or overtime?

So, how much time does the average German really spend working? Apparently, it’s eight hours and ten minutes per day – just slightly over the 40-hour working week that most contracts mandate. 

However, it seems that the trend of slamming the laptop closed and skipping to the pub for a Feierabendbier (after-work drink) straight from the office may be increasingly out of step with reality. In fact, Germans on average put in almost five hours of overtime each week – more than any other country surveyed.

The most common tasks that employees in Germany do outside of regular working hours include: sending or reading emails (46 percent), making or receiving phone calls (33 percent) and writing to-do lists (33 percent).

READ ALSO: Working in Germany: 7 factors that can affect how much you’re paid

In a typical week, Germans have the least time for themselves at five hours and 46 minutes, while the British have almost an hour more at six hours and 37 minutes.

Though it may sound like Germany is a nation of workaholics, it seems that the results have much more to do with an increasingly pressurised work environment. 

According to the survey, 18 percent of Germans are satisfied with the current ratio: most say they would prefer the work-life balance to be the opposite way around, with 43 percent for work and 57 percent private time.

To improve this split where possible, 48 percent try to get a healthy amount of sleep each night, 51 percent avoid talking about work on the weekend, and 37 percent try to schedule a lunch break every day.

Impact of the pandemic

It’s no secret that Covid-19 has turned all our lives upside down, particularly when it comes to the world of work.

Home office has become the new normal for many people in Germany, and recently the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs even floated the idea of enshrining the right to work from home in law.

Home office in Germany

A woman sits at a desk while working from home. ‘Home office’ promises a lot – but does it deliver?Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Finn Winkler

But does that really lead to a better work-life balance?

In spite of the saved commuting time and the convenience of swapping a suit for some pyjamas, 28 percent of Germans reported that they actually spent more time working throughout the pandemic than before it. 

In addition, the survey showed that 43 percent of Germans used their commuting time to get some additional work done. The typical working commute lasted 31 minutes, with more than a third (35 percent) saying it helped them feel well set-up for the day ahead.

READ ALSO: German lifestyles become ‘more sluggish’ due to pandemic

‘Workations’ and ‘bleisure’

According to Stephanie Rowe, a spokesperson for Novotel, two interesting trends have sprung up this year in the world of work: “workations”, where people combine work and vacations, and “bleisure”, a combination of business and leisure. 

Though the most cynical among us may see this as a damning indictment of the current working world, apparently 88 percent of Germans have reported managing to carve out some valuable “me time” on a recent business trip. 

Work in Portugal

A woman works at a cafe in Madiera, Portugal. For many Germans, vacations have turned into “workations” recently. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Startup Madeira | Startup Madeira

However, Rowe points to the fact that more than a quarter (27 percent) of Germans have had to sign off work due to stress as a sign that work-leisure balance simply isn’t good enough. 

“The last two years have undoubtedly had an impact on our overall routines and priorities, especially working hours, as many homes have also become workplaces,” she said. “Even if you are working intensively on something, you should also schedule leisure activities to switch off.”

If these revelations are all a little bit too mind-blowing, it might be a relief to find out that some of the stereotypes do hold true: Germans end their working day the earliest at 5:36pm, while Poles, in contrast, tend to work until around 7pm each day.

READ ALSO: Six golden rules for creating the ideal German cover letter and résumé

And what of the humble Feierabendbier that is so celebrated in those Schultheiss adverts? That, too, may be just a little bit of a myth. (Sorry.) 

In fact, when most German workers want to switch off, they opt for watching TV (61 percent), taking a bath or shower (42 percent) or going out to eat (36 percent).

Still, one-sixth say they constantly have work on their mind, and 42 percent wish they had more time for themselves.

“Three out of ten respondents want to improve their work-life balance this year,” said Rowe. “We encourage employees to re-energise relationships with people they hold dear, travel, explore, re-experience things and take time off this year and use it well.”

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‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change.