Germans take their holidays seriously – very seriously

by Cathrin Schaer / 07 September, 2017
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Germans may appear to be leisure gluttons, but their productivity doesn’t seem to suffer at all.

August in Europe means holidays; it means the already-slow-grinding gears of German bureaucracy coming to a near standstill, schools closing, cities emptying and parking spots appearing on every once-crowded Berlin street.

But it’s not all fun and frolics. Because in the same way that they make their Mercedes, operate heavy machinery and concoct laws, the Germans take their holidays seriously. Very seriously.

Forward planning is a must, says one colleague who received a spreadsheet to proof before a long weekend in Spain. No matter the destination, a German holidaymaker is always well equipped. Even a gentle Sunday stroll through the countryside – on a paved road – requires the kind of all-weather gear and high-tech hiking boots that most New Zealand trampers would only dream of donning if they were off for a six-week traverse of the Southern Alps.

You may have heard how German tourists like to reserve sun loungers by draping their towels on them overnight so they can claim the best spot by the pool in the morning. Germans know that more easy-going travellers are fools who do not understand that sunbathing is a competitive sport.

The same earnestness applies to other aspects of German leisure. Consider the rules about so-called “Ruhezeiten”, or quiet times. Often the community at a German holiday spot – say, a village by a lake – will specify that between the hours of noon and 4pm every Saturday and usually all of Sunday, there can be no untoward noise. No mowing of lawns, hammering of nails or playing of Led Zeppelin. And they mean it. Your correspondent was accosted by an angry neighbour once because she dared to vacuum on a Sunday.

It may be the result of a national fondness for rules, a more-conservative, less-consumerist culture or the relative strength of trade unions here, but many German businesses also seem to recognise that a good employee is a well-rested one.

In fact, it’s quite common to get a call from your human resources manager angrily demanding you take all your contracted vacation days before the end of the year. According to one study, most Germans tend do that anyway, whereas Americans often take only half, seemingly out of fear that their absence will be taken as lack of commitment to the job.

Not so in Germany, where time off is seen as a right, not a reward. Your furlough is yours and yours alone, and what God has given the worker, no manager can put asunder.

Another study found that 73% of Germans considered it “unacceptable” to have to worry about work while on holiday, compared with only 39% of Britons.

That attitude seems to be working. Alongside a staunch approach to rest and recreation, Germany also has a comparatively high number of mandated holidays. But when Germans go to work, they don’t muck about. On average, they put in some of the shortest hours in the OECD: about 1360 hours a year in 2016. Yet German productivity, measured as GDP per hour worked, is about US$105.70.

Compare that with New Zealand, where we clock up a whopping 388 hours more a year than the Germans. Yet New Zealand’s productivity is valued at 50c less than Germany’s. In the US, where people work 31 more hours than those in New Zealand, the value of productivity is significantly lower still.

All of which is why in August in Europe, you can bet Germans will be getting the job done on holiday, leaving towels on sun loungers every­where and not feeling the slightest bit guilty about it.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash, based in Berlin. 

This article was first published in the July 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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