Working Hours

The Right to a Sabbatical

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s labor minister wants to give employees greater flexibility in structuring their working hours. But an analysis by Verdi, the public sector union, suggests this remains a distant goal.

  • Facts


    • Under proposed legislation introduced by the labor minister, employees would have a right to a sabbatical and play a stronger role in structuring their working hours.
    • One in three employees would like to change the scope and location of his or her working hours.
    • But such work models will be difficult to enforce in the service sector, where almost 20 percent of employees work more than 48 hours a week.
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Bundestag zum Haushalt 2017
Andrea Nahles, SPD labor minister, wants to help workers' have more control over their working lives. Source: DPA

At a conference on working hours in Berlin, Germany’s Social Democratic labor minister, Andrea Nahles, defended her controversial bill on limited part-time work, saying it was time for employers to broaden employees’ say in questions over work-life-balance.

Service sector workers see little room for change, however, and employer groups call the plans one-sided.

Ms. Nahles sees limited part-time work as a first step on the path to elective working hours for employees. She also wants to enshrine employees’ rights to discuss the duration and location of their working hours as part of the new law.

For the labor minister, one provision of the draft law – the right to return to a full-time position after a part-time stint – will be especially beneficial to female employees, half of whom work part-time. But with the proposed law she also wants to encourage men to cut back their hours to benefit their families, she added.

Legal provisions had to be changed to adapt to modern requirements, Ms. Nahles said, adding that one in three employees would like to adjust the scope and location of his or her working hours. Employees no longer wanted to “postpone the appealing things in life until tomorrow, the day after tomorrow or retirement,” Ms. Nahles said.

Workers should therefore have the right to a sabbatical or to change their working hours on a daily basis, the minister concludes.


Nearly 19 percent of service sector employees work more than 48 hours per week, often on weekends or in the evening.

But while some industries already offer more flexible and innovative schedules, the service sector is still a long way from elective working hours, a special report by Germany’s Verdi public sector union showed.

About half of those surveyed for the union study said they had little or no influence on structuring their working hours. These employees are more likely to feel rushed or pressured than people with more options to structure their working hours.

The analysis also showed that 39.9 percent of service sector professionals work more than 43 hours a week, with 18.6 percent working even more than 48 hours. Three out of four respondents regularly work evenings or on weekends.

Work compression is especially high among nursing personnel, with only a quarter saying they will be able to maintain such working conditions until retirement. Almost two out of three nurses said that quality suffers as a result of workplace stress, adversely affecting patients. The respondents consider insufficient staffing to be the main reason for work compression, mirroring responses in the banking sector, public services and retail.

But Verdi also points out that greater freedom in structuring working hours does not necessarily lead to greater satisfaction. In the information and telecommunications industry, one in three employees whose working hours are not recorded, so-called trust-based working hours, works more than 48 hours a week. But Ms. Nahles promises to remedy that problem as well. “Sometimes we also need to protect some employees from themselves,” she said.

For representatives of Germany’s employers’ association BDA the unions’ message does not resonate well. They accuse the unions of exploiting the issue of working hours for shock value.

Peter Clever, a BDA member of management called the findings “an interest-based, distorted picture that does not correspond to actual conditions in the working world and is quasi-scientific.” Companies’ concerns were completely ignored, Mr. Clever said, despite the fact that Germany was scoring very well in global comparisons on issues of workplace satisfaction.

Frank Specht covers the labor market and labor relations for Handelsblatt. To contact him: