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Why Germany is debating a shorter working week

For around half a century, employees in Germany have been working the same number of hours each week. But with work-life balance becoming a struggle, some are asking if it's time for a change.

Exhausted worker on bed
A man lies on his bed after finishing work. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Though Germans have a reputation for having a great work-life balance, recent studies have shown that reality may be far less rosy than it first appears. 

Earlier this year, a survey from hotel chain Novotel found that Germans had the worst work-life balance of four European countries surveyed, with respondents reporting that 58 percent of their time was dedicated to their jobs and just 42 percent was dedicated to their private lives.

The ever-increasing burden of work has prompted some to call for a radical rethink of the way our working lives are structured. In particular, the idea of switching to a four-day rather than five-day work week is gaining ground – and a recent survey by RTL found that 70 percent of Germans are in favour of it.

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

This sounds great – but could it actually work? 

For many European countries, the concept of working four days a week is more than just a utopian idea. In Belgium, for example, the government has recently passed legislation to give employees the right to switch to a four-day work week for no less pay. In return for the longer weekend, they have to complete a full 38 hours of work in those four days, which equates to 9.5 hours per day. 

Meanwhile, the UK has just kicked off the world’s largest trial of the new system, with 70 companies switching to a four-day working week for a total of six months. In the UK, the system follows a so-called “100:80:100” model, which means that employees get 100 percent of the pay for 80 percent of the working hours, but make a commitment to getting the same amount of work done as before.

In Iceland, the working week was cut from 40 hours to 35 hours a week last year – and so far the results are positive, with a huge improvement to employee wellbeing and no difference in productivity.  

What’s happening in Germany?

So far, Germany has made far less progress in implementing a shorter working week on the same scale. However, the leftwing Die Linke party has been calling for a 30-hour work week for some time, and there have been some pioneers in the business sector who have trialed the scheme in their own companies. 

For example, the Hamburg-based software firm Knowhere has announced that employees will switch to a four-day, 32-hour work week from August for the same salary. Vereda, a marketing firm in Munster, has already implemented the same system. 

Workers in the highly unionised metalworking industry managed to get their hours reduced to 35 per week as far back at the 1990s, and in 2018 the union IG Metall achieved what they described as a ‘milestone’ victory when they managed to get concessions for senior employees to cut their working hours to 28 per week during major life events. 

READ ALSO: Metalworkers win ’milestone’ 28-hour week concession from bosses

However, there are also voices pushing in the other direction. Most recently, Siegfried Russwurm, the president of the Federation of German Industries, called for the introduction of 42-hour working week in order to combat labour shortages in Germany. 

Siegfried Russwurm BDI

Siegfried Russwurm, president of the Federal of German Industries, speaks at an event in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

“I personally have great sympathy for an optional increase in weekly working hours – with full wage compensation, of course,” Russwurm told the Funke Media Group on Saturday.

The idea of extending working hours is not a new one: in 2004, Bavaria tried to introduced a 42-hour work week for public-sector workers but had to backtrack when largescale protests broke out. A similar scheme with a 44-hour work week for public sector workers was attempted in North-Rhine Westphalia as recently as last year – but once again, it was impossible to implement. 

So it seems there is no appetite among German people for increasing their weekly hours. 

How would a four-day week work? 

Since the idea is relatively new, different countries and companies are trying out different ways to organise their four-day weeks. 

One option is the Belgian model, where employees can choose to work longer days in return for a three-day weekend. Another option is model being trialed in the UK, where companies ask their employees to complete a similar amount of work in less time. 

Of course, the most relaxed model would be one in which working hours are simply reduced and in which employees get the same salary for four days instead of five. Proponents of the scheme argue that, based on results in places like Iceland, increased employee wellbeing would lead to a boost in productivity on the remaining work days anyway. 

However, those who are more sceptical of the idea say it partially depends on the sector. In hospitality, for example, productivity may be measured in a different way from an office job. 

READ ALSO: Is a four-day working week possible in Germany?

What are the current rules in Germany?

Currently, full-time workers in Germany generally have to work 40 hours per week, though in some cases collective agreements and other arrangements can see this reduced to 37.5 or 38.5 hours instead. 

Restaurant in Stuttgart

A waiter serves tables at a restaurant in Stuttgart. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Weißbrod

In reality, however, many employees spend longer than this on work each week. In 2021, people in Germany wracked up a total of 818 million hours of paid overtime and 893 million hours of unpaid overtime, according to Statista. 

Of course, there are options to work part-time or opt for more flexible arrangements. However, cutting working hours generally results in a proportional pay cut. 

Will Germany change its working hours? 

At the moment, the government doesn’t have any plans to make changes to the working week and is instead relying on employees to make their own arrangements with their employers.

“The introduction of a statutory four-day week is not planned in Germany,” the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs told German news site Watson. “(Employers and employees) are free to make their own decisions in this regard, subject to the provisions of the Working Hours Act.”

However, the history of the labour movement shows that even the five-day working week was once an ideal that workers had to fight for. 

Shortly after the First World War, the Social Democrats (SPD) introduced the eight-hour working day in Germany. Though this was an improvement on the grindingly long hours they previously had to work, it still meant that employees worked a 48-hour week, including Saturdays.

This model was kept in place until the 1950s, when the German trade unionists started to call for a five-day week under slogans like “Daddy belongs to me on Saturdays” and “40 hours of work is enough!”.

The campaigns were ultimately successful, and the 40-hour week was gradually rolled out across various industries over the coming years and decades – starting with the tobacco industry in 1956 and ending with the agriculture industry (who adopted the five-day week far later than everyone else) in 1983. 

READ ALSO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?

Tractors dig up fields in Thuringia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens-Ulrich Koch

What are politicians saying?

At the moment, it seems that politicians in Germany are increasingly sympathetic to the idea of more flexible working hours – if not necessarily a strict four-day week.

“A reduction in working hours and a greater redistribution of gainful employment and other work makes sense and is to be strived for,” Green Party labour policy spokesperson Wolfgang Strengmann-Kuhn explained.

“However, a four-day week for everyone is too rigid. People should be able to decide for themselves as much as possible when and how much they work.”

The idea of a “flexi week” was also raised by Stephan Stracke, who chairs the CSU/CDU working group on work and social affairs.

“We currently have rigid daily working hours,” he told Watson. “That no longer fits in with today’s times. Today’s employees want to work more flexibly, in order to better reconcile family and career.”

For his part, Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) is also keen for employees to have more flexibility than before – though not necessarily in working hours.

Back in January, he announced plans for legislation that would give workers the right to work from home for at least 24 days per year, even after the Covid pandemic has ended. 

READ ALSO: German Labour Minister wants to allow more remote working after pandemic

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FDP party pushes for points-based immigration in Germany

Germany’s liberal FDP party is pushing for the introduction of a points system based on the Canadian model to tackle the country's shortage of skilled workers.

FDP party pushes for points-based immigration in Germany

Germany has been struggling to fill its lack of skilled workers for some time now and in the first quarter of this year, the labour market shortfall reached record levels.

To tackle this problem, the FDP party – one of the three parties in the traffic light coalition government –  is pushing for a points system based on the Canadian model to be introduced as soon as possible. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German industries ‘most affected’ by skilled worker shortage

“Canadian experience shows that more than 60 percent of immigrants are gained via this route,” FDP party vice chairman Johannes Vogel told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “That’s why we must by no means neglect the path of so-called self-organized immigration in the new set of rules.”

It’s understood that a points-based system such as what Vogel describes, could mean that immigration would be permitted without the need for a concrete job offer, which has so far been required by German immigration law. Instead, the system would award points based on factors such as a high level of education, young age, and good language skills.

In July, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser and Federal Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (both SPD) presented key points for immigration law reform, on which the traffic light parties had agreed to in the coalition agreement.

Vogel said that he thought this “first step” was good, but that the proposed entry possibilities in the event of a job offer should also be supplemented by a points system.

READ ALSO: ‘Appointments in English’: How Germany wants to attract talent from abroad