Flu cases on the rise in Germany: When (and how) should you take sick leave?

Paul Krantz
Paul Krantz - [email protected]
Flu cases on the rise in Germany: When (and how) should you take sick leave?
A stethoscope and thermometer on a table in a doctor's office. Photo: Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

Following a dip in infections around the turn of the year, flu and respiratory illness rates are spiking again. Thankfully German labour laws ensure that workers have plenty of opportunity to take time off when they are sick.


If it feels like everyone is falling ill around you, it may be because the flu is on the rise again in Germany this week.

According to a report by the Robert Koch Institute, which collects data on flu incidents in Germany, acute respiratory disease incidence is up this week compared with the week before. Last week the incidence of respiratory illness was around 7,300 per 100,000 people, as opposed to 6,700 in the previous week. 

The report suggests that respiratory illness “has been increasing since mid-2023,” peaking in December, with an incidence rate that has lingered above pre-pandemic levels for a few weeks.

The estimated incidence of Covid-19 has been trending downward compared to previous years, with the recent spike in illness attributed mainly to influenza viruses, RSV, and rhinoviruses. 

Similar to previous years, the current spike in infections followed a short dip near the turn of the year. This trend is likely related to a person's level of contact increasing as they return to work after the winter holidays.

Is illness to blame for Germany becoming Europe’s ‘sick man’?

Starting last autumn, headlines began referring to Germany as a ‘sick man,’ due to its poor economic performance in 2023.

‘Sick man of Europe’ is a term, dating back to the early 1800s, given to countries that experience economic difficulties and related social unrest. But in this case, the label can be applied somewhat literally. 


According to a report by VFA, Germany’s association of research-based pharmaceutical companies, a record level of sick leave taken by German workers last year played a significant role in the country slipping into an economic recession. 

“Without the above-average sick days, the German economy would have grown by almost 0.5 per cent,” VFA said in a report released in January.

However, the report also explains that Germany’s economic performance may be more immediately linked to its dependence on exports, elevated energy costs, and a global slump in investment.

When is it okay to call in sick to work?

German workers are notoriously given a fair amount of sick time, and they’re not afraid to use it. 

According to the Information Service of the German Economic Institute (IWD), employees in Germany took an average of 22 sick days in 2022. In comparison, workers in the UK take an average of 4.6 sick days each year according to the UK’s office for National Statistics, and US citizens are known to take even less than that.

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

German employers are legally required to accept up to 30 paid sick days per year, but more time off (paid for by health insurance) is allowed.

Thirty absences in a year is probably excessive in most cases, exceptional circumstances aside. But generally there is a sense among workers in Germany that taking time off to recuperate when you are ill is important.

So don’t hesitate to take a sick day, should you find yourself suffering from the flu this season.


What to know about taking sick time in Germany

Legally, you need to inform your employer about your absence due to illness before the start of work. This can typically be done however you typically communicate with your boss, via phone call, email or message.

Normally a doctor’s note (Krankschreibung) is only required by the fourth day of absence, but it’s worth double checking this with your employer. In some cases it may be written into a contract that a doctor’s note is required sooner. 

In fact, a 2021 Federal Labour Court decision ruled that a boss can request a sick note even on the first day that you don’t come into work.

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

It’s also worth noting that you can actually save your vacation days if you fall ill during a holiday. Your vacation days can be restored if you inform your employer, and hand in a doctor’s note, as would normally be required.

But in Germany it is not a good idea to take a sick day for alternative reasons, as this is considered a justifiable reason to terminate an employee immediately.

In short, do skip work if you have the flu – just be sure to tell your boss and collect a doctor’s note when necessary. 

Oh, and don’t forget to generously air out (Lüften) your house or flat and drink lots of herbal tea.


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