German and British work culture

When I left the army after marrying and deciding to stay in Germany, I was moving away from a society in which I had found it difficult to find my place and had embraced the chance for a fresh start. To begin with, it was not easy, but a series of events left me convinced that I was being protected in a way that I had not expected. Especially when I fell ill with anal fistula, which had to be operated and took an awfully long time to heal, I was amazed to find that I kept my job. Additionally, there were times when I was told by my employer to take a few days off, after turning in with a stinking cold.

Even in the army after a week with tonsillar fever in the sick bay, I was sent back to my unit on “medicine and duties,” despite not having eaten more than soups in a week, and still very weak on my feet. Trying to get the camouflage net onto my vehicle was virtually impossible, and I only received assistance after I had fallen off. At the time, I thought this was normal, and expected no more in Germany, but it was quite different.

Germans are highly regarded around the world for their efficiency in the workplace and office, and it has been proven true that German workers are more productive than the rest of their European neighbours, despite taking more sick days and vacation days, especially compared to British workers. Fullfact.org claims that British workers, as measured by GDP per hour, are less productive than those in Germany and France, so much so that the average German would get done on Thursday what a Brit would get done on Friday. One of the reasons for this is probably the Germans’ better understanding of work-life balance. By finding the happy medium between work and leisure, Germans can be much more productive in the office while also relaxing and unwinding better. There are many references to this balance in the German vernacular.

“Bridge days” (Brückentage) is one term that expresses this balance, meaning that some workers, unless they are scheduled for shift work, take a holiday day or two around the holidays, or cut back on overtime to recharge and keep themselves mentally fresh for work. Another common German saying is “First the work, then the pleasure!” English has similar phrases, but you do not hear them often and even less often adhere to them. Thus, there seems to be a deep-rooted culture in Germany to work so productively that one can then relax.

There has long been a trend among British office workers to go to work even when they are sick and then downplay the illness to management. While this results in more time being spent in the office, it has serious negative effects on productivity and risks passing on illness among colleagues. In Germany, however, the prevailing opinion is that people should stay home when they are sick. They say, “If you’re sick, you’re sick.” This mentality not only protects other office workers, but also allows individuals to rest and recover so that they can be back at work and more productive in a shorter period.

In Germany, there has traditionally also been a much more generous type of social benefit. This is especially true of unemployment benefits, where someone who becomes unemployed receives a remarkably high percentage of their last income for one year. Patricia Hogwood, a lecturer in European politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster, who specializes in German politics and the welfare system, has said that she, as a university lecturer, for example, would receive 80 percent of her current salary and be very well off. She found that this would not be much of an incentive to get back into the workforce.

In 2003, however, the Social Democrat-led German coalition government introduced the so-called Hartz IV welfare reforms to tighten the conditions for receiving long-term unemployment benefits, which proved extremely unpopular. In contrast, if British workers became unemployed, they would immediately face radical income cuts, except for the Job Seekers Allowance, which pays a consistent, age-based personal allowance per week, creating an incentive to find a job as soon as possible. It is true that the unemployment rate in the UK has been lower than in Germany, although it has been similar in recent years. The advantage of German workers is that they can take their time to find a suitable employer, while they have only a slight disadvantage in terms of income.

Germany’s set of social programmes implemented in the German Empire by Otto von Bismarck in 1883 as remedial measures to appease the working class were centred squarely on insurance programs designed to increase productivity, and essentially served as the model until the mid-20th century, after which the systems diverged and Britain “opts for a kind of peculiar version of the contributory system of national insurance,” as Chris Renwick, senior lecturer in Modern History at the University of York, puts it. “So what Britain goes for is a flat rate system: So flat-rate contributions and flat-rate benefit payments out of the system. “If you’ve paid in for 20 years you get the same amount as you do if you paid in for six months.” (“Welfare state: Who′s bigger on benefits, Germany or the UK …”)

Patricia Hogwood says the Anglo-Irish model was always intended to provide comprehensive emergency coverage. “It was never intended to replace income in the event of an emergency. So if you became unemployed, you got a lump-sum subsidy from the government. If you had a well-paying job, that wouldn’t come close to covering the expenses you were used to. If you had a low-paying job, it would be about what you were used to. And the payments were short-lived because it was assumed that people would find a new job fairly quickly.” (“Welfare state: Who′s bigger on benefits, Germany or the UK …”) (https://www.dw.com/en/welfare-state-whos-bigger-on-benefits-germany-or-the-uk/a-42522407).

By comparison, Germany has developed a strong social contract with workers over decades since WWII. There are many laws and regulations that employers must follow to ensure the welfare and fair and equal treatment of workers.

Patricia Hogwood also argued in 2016 that the German system has already shown weaknesses, using a historical analysis to argue that the erosion of the principles of social justice underlying the corporatist system of health administration in Germany represents a change in basic assumptions in service delivery. It noted that the German welfare system has faced a number of internal and external pressures in recent decades, including fiscal constraints, the impact of globalization, demographic crises, and the near collapse of the eurozone.

It is true that over the years, political leaders have increasingly moved the state away from direct service delivery and outsourced services to private organisations, which are subject to stringent controls. The goal in implementing these changes has been to introduce financial sustainability, but without sacrificing social equity, a value that continues to arouse great interest among the German public. The tension this creates is unmistakable, and the reduction in hospital beds, as well as nursing staff, has been clearly felt in the Corona crisis. And yet, the number of nursing beds in Germany is significantly higher than in the UK, with eight per one thousand inhabitants in Germany and 2.5 per one thousand inhabitants in Great Britain. (https://www.indexmundi.com/g/rank.html).

What we must also not overlook, is the fact that the long-term sustainability of the NHS is being discussed and suspicions have been expressed that the Tory government is seeking to “sell out” the NHS. A House of Lords Select Committee, chaired by the crossbench peer and obstetrician Narendra Patel, came in 2017 to the conclusion is that unless several changes are implemented, the NHS and adult social care system will be unsustainable. The Lancet reported in 2017:

“More funding for the NHS is recommended in the report, with funding needing to rise at least as fast as increases in the gross domestic product for 10 years after 2020. A decade of pay restraint has led to low morale and made recruitment difficult, especially for low paid staff. The report concludes that the biggest internal threat to the sustainability of the NHS is the lack of a long-term strategy to secure an appropriately skilled, well trained, and committed workforce.” (“The future of the NHS – The Lancet”) https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)30994-7/fulltext#:~:text=The%20future%20of%20the%20NHS%20and%20social%20care,debate%20on%20insurance%20for%20social%20care%20must%20happen.

However, a paper by the Health Ministry from 2006 also states, “Over the course of its nearly 140-year history, the German healthcare system has proven to be extremely robust. In order to overcome the challenges ahead, we must continue to adapt our health system to changes in society.” The challenges are there for every country it seems.

Of course, the pressures brought on by the economic environment around the world are also being felt in Germany. It is the protection of labour law and social benefits that help to cope with the encroachment on health when it comes. For people working in Germany, this means that their health concerns are considered without jeopardizing their social status. I know several people who developed mental health issues at the end of their working lives, caused by stress and burnout, and were able to use the social safety net to retire without suffering significant loss of income along the way. Judging from the examples I know of this seems to be extremely difficult in the UK.

I consider myself to be incredibly lucky to have worked and retired in Germany. What the future will bring, we will see.