Working in Germany For Members

Could Germany introduce a four-day working week for employees?

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
Could Germany introduce a four-day working week for employees?
Campaigners in Erfurt call for a four-day work week. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Michael Reichel

Should employees in Germany be able to work four days a week for the same pay? An overwhelming majority of Germans apparently think so - and the largest union in the country is pressuring employers for exactly that. Here's what the debate is all about.


When many foreigners think about life in Germany, they're likely to think about its reputation for having strong workers' rights and a healthy work-life balance.

As well as unlimited sick leave, generous paid holiday allowances and some of the highest salaries in Europe, there's also the famed obsession with 'Feierabend': a term that designates a hard stop between the day of work and an evening of leisure. 

However, despite the benefits of working in Germany, not everyone is happy with the status quo.

In a recent poll conducted by the Hans Böckler Foundation, 73 percent of respondents said they would fully support a switch to a four-day working week - as long as they received the same pay. In contrast, just 17 percent said they didn't support a shorter work week.

People who supported the move cited the need for more time with their family, for themselves, hobbies and voluntary work as the main reasons for wanting to cut their hours. 

Three quarters of respondents also said they were keen to reduce their workload in general. 

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

At the same time, Germany's largest union - IG Metall - has recently been calling for a reduction in work hours for employees in the steel industry.

They want to slash contracted hours from 35 a week to 32 spread over just four days, but maintain the same salaries for workers. The union had successful negotiated a cut in working hours to 35 per week way back in the 1990s and more recently a 28-hour working week for people going through exceptional life circumstances. 


The move is symptomatic of growing interest in more flexible working schedules as people increasingly feel overwhelmed by the constraints of balancing their private lives with a 40-hour, or five-day, working week. 

With other countries conducting trials of the four-day week in recent years, it is also a sign that the idea is gaining traction in Germany.

What's the idea behind the four-day week?

Proponents of the four-day working week say that reducing working hours can give people a much healthier work-life balance and can even improve the productivity of workers.

In particular, they state that people have much more energy, focus and job satisfaction when they aren't overwhelmed with long hours, meaning they can get the same amount of work done in significantly less time.

This concept was tested in a recent UK trial in which several companies switched their employees onto a four-day contract instead of a five-day one. The deal was that these employees could still take home the same pay, provided they were able to maintain the same level of productivity in 32 versus 40 hours. 

Back in February, after the trial ended, the experiment was hailed as a "breakthrough moment" as the 56 of the 61 companies involved decided to extend the four-day working week for longer - with 18 of them adopting it long-term. 

Doctors call for a shorter working week at a demo in Berlin.

Doctors call for a shorter working week at a demo in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH | Fabian Sommer

Another model that's been proposed is one in which people work longer hours over four days in order to gain a three-day weekend. Belgium recently introduced legislation to make this an option for workers. 

Meanwhile, steel workers' union IG Metall has argued that more part-time workers - and especially women - would be willing to return to the workforce if they only had to work for four rather than five days out of seven.

"Eleven million employees, mostly women, work part-time," IG Metall chair Jörg Hofmann told Bild am Sonntag in a recent interview. "That is almost 30 percent of all employees subject to social security contributions, which is one of the highest percentages in Europe." 

READ ALSO: Why Germany is debating a shorter working week

The author of Vier Tage Woche or “Four-day Week” Martin Gaedt interviewed around 150 companies in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland who have successfully introduced the initiative. 

Gaedt predicted that 20,000 or even 30,000 German companies could be on a four-day work week by the end on the year, no matter how the political debate goes.

“I don’t think we need politics in this discussion because it’s a decision every company can already choose today,” Gaedt told the Germany in Focus podcast recently. “There’s not one company with reduced productivity. Everybody who’s painting this dark image can’t even show one bad example.”

INTERVIEW: A four-day work week will become more widespread in Germany

So a four-day week is kind of a no-brainer, right?

For a lot of the proponents of a shorter working week, it does seem that way - but there are a fair amount of counter-arguments too.

Prof. Dr. Enzo Weber, who works at the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) at the University of Regensburg, points out that expecting a huge jump in productivity with a dramatic cut in hours may be an unrealistic dream.


"In my opinion, a four-day week with full wage compensation is not possible from a macroeconomic point of view," Weber told The Local.

"For that to happen, productivity would have to increase by 25 percent because of the reduction in working hours, which is not realistic. In many jobs it is also completely impossible; think of bus drivers or care workers, for example."

However, Weber notes that in the case of IG Metall, a small drop from 35 hours to 32 would only require an 8.5 percent uptick in productivity to compensate for the lost time.

IG Metall union demo

A member of the IG Metall union holds a sign that states "Steel is the future" at a demo in Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

Nevertheless, a blanket rule that cuts employment contracts down to four days could be tricky to organise in certain industries such as healthcare or hospitality.

"But in these cases a four-day week would not necessarily mean that all employees have the same days off," Weber added. "This requires a flexible way of organising (rotas), but this has been common practice for decades in industries with many part-time workers."

In the case of the recent UK trial, the companies who participated already had a positive view of the four-day working week and a vision for implementing it in their workflows. 

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


Indeed, many also experimented with other strategies for boosting productivity in the meantime, such as changing their processes or introducing new technologies.

As Weber summarises: "Even though companies may be satisfied with the results, one should not conclude from this that the four-day week in itself significantly increases productivity."

Perhaps more importantly, introducing a three-day weekend may not suit everyone's career goals and preferences.

In the recent Hans Böckler Foundation poll, most people who rejected the idea of the four-day week felt that they simply couldn't achieve the same in a shorter amount of time and that nothing much would change about their level of stress in the workplace.

A man works at his desk.

A man works at his desk. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Finn Winkler

Around 86 percent of the people who were content with their current schedules said they enjoyed their work, while a significant number said they felt it would be hard to put work aside for a day. 

Others felt the shorter hours would hinder their career opportunities.

"The often-heard statement that people (especially the young) want to work less today than in the past is wrong," said Weber. "Desires have remained fairly stable for decades. However, there are many (today as in the past) who would like to work shorter hours and many who would like to work longer."

READ ALSO: COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the most public holidays?


When will see a shorter working week in Germany? 

At present, the government has no firm plans to enforce a four-day work week in the country - though some prominent politicians have spoken out in favour of the idea.

"I can well imagine that we would achieve good results with a four-day week," former SPD leader Saskia Esken told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland (RND). "There are studies according to which people work more effectively in a week reduced to four working days because they have higher job satisfaction. Because they have more time for their private life."

Currently, it seems the most likely route to more flexible hours will be through the unions. 

When IG Metall sits down for its next round of contract negotiations in November, it says it will be fighting for a 32-hour week instead of a 35-hour one.

A woman signs an employment contract.

A woman signs an employment contract. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

According to the Ministry for Work and Social Affairs (BMAS), collective negotiations could be the best avenue for workers to improve their work-life balance.

"The introduction of a statutory four-day week is not planned in Germany," a spokesperson for BMAS told The Local. "Decisions on the organisation of working time are left by the Basic Law to the parties to collective agreements and the respective employment contracts. These are free in their decisions in this regard, subject to the provisions of the Working Hours Act."

Of course, big industry employers - including those in the steel industry - are not likely to go down without a fight.

Speaking to Bild am Sonntag, Stefan Kampeter, the head of the employers' association BDA, dismissed the four-day week for the same pay as "milkmaid's maths". 

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


"We will only be able to finance our welfare state and climate protection in the long term with more work and innovation," he said.

For Mercedes CEO Ola Källenius, meanwhile, shorter hours would make Germany less competitive.

"If our first priority is to work less with full wage compensation, we won't win any more games internationally," Källenius told Bild.

In short: the battle over a four-day week is likely to be raging for some time yet. 


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