Power outage

Productive But Frequently Sick, Germany Juggles Aging Workforce

A stressed employee in Cologne. Source: Reuters
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    For most companies, a worker off sick is a drain on productivity. But Germany shows that sometimes taking a duvet day is the best thing an employee can do.

  • Facts


    • Sick days cost Germany €60 billion a year.
    • Mental health problems are rising.
    • Germany has generous sick-leave allowance and an aging population.
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When Melissa Schäplitz got a bad cough in her first week working as a dental nurse at an exclusive dental surgery clinic in West Berlin, she didn’t hesitate to call in sick.

“The doctor said I needed a week to recover. My new boss wasn’t so happy, but I couldn’t cough over the patients so I stayed home,” she said. “When I went back, I was able to make the good first impression I wanted to make.”

Germany – Europe’s economic powerhouse – has one of the continent’s highest rates of sick leave, and that rate is rising fast. Mental health issues, especially those related to depression and stress, are on the increase. Both are fueling an ongoing debate in the country.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government said last year it would seek ways to improve the work-life balance of workers, but so far has approved no legislation on out-of-hours contact.

At the state level, Guntram Schneider, the labor minister in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, suggested this week introducing anti-stress laws to stop employers from contacting their workers outside office hours.

Statistics indicate that Germans are calling in sick more often.

The data shows that sickness generally is highest in the former East Germany, where despite billions in investment over the last two decades economic growth continues to lag the west. In 2013, except for the state of Saxony, the former East German states — Mecklenburg-Lower Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Berlin and Thuringia — continue to trail the western part of the country.

Comparative data from the European Company Survey shows that while sickness rates from 2004 to 2009 fell from 17 percent to 9 percent in the United Kingdom and from 29 percent to 21 percent in France, in Germany, they jumped from 17 percent to 24 percent. Employees in the country take on average 16 days of sick leave, compared with nine days in the United Kingdom and just under five in the United States.

Yet experts argue the statistics paint a misleading picture, noting that German workers put in fewer hours per week than those in some other European countries, such as the United Kingdom. A full-time German worker in 2011, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, worked 42 hours a week, compared with 47 hours in the Britain.

Some suggest Germany’s relatively high rates of sick leave aren’t a weakness but a strength.

Professor Roger Seifert, a labor analyst at Wolverhampton University said that while work in the United Kingdom has become more intense, with plenty of people competing for jobs, but productivity is low. “Workers are under pressure to come into work when sick,” he said. “If they don’t, they can be easily replaced. Mr. Seifert referred to German workers as being “more productive,” thanks in part for being less worried about “adverse consequences” of taking sick leave.

“We found that it is worth retaining the older workers, even if they are often slower, because the quality is higher and the overall productivity stays the same or improves”

Jochen Frey, BMW Spokesman

Indeed data shows that Germany is more productive than the UK: Britain’s Office for National Statistics shows that in terms of productivity per hour worked – a standard measure of productivity- the German worker scored 123.7, while the UK scored 107.2.

That said, costs attributed to sick days run about €60 billion a year in Germany, according to the consultancy Roland Berger. The firm expects the country’s ageing population to increase those numbers. Today, 30 percent of the workforce in Germany is aged between 50 and 64, a number expected to rise to 40 percent by 2050.

Carmaker BMW estimates that the percentage of its employees older than 50 will rise from 25 percent to over 35 percent by 2020. As part of a pilot project in its plant in Dingolfing, the company provides workers with specially cushioned shoes, ergonomic furniture and supportive gloves as well as counselling and health care. To reduce stress, it has also added breaks in production; when workers require slightly more time to assemble a part, the assembly line slows down. The measures, BMW says, have helped boost productivity and employee morale, and are being copied elsewhere.

“We started off thinking this was a mainly German problem – dealing with an older workforce, but we found that our managers in our Korean plants are also interested,” said Jochen Frey, a company spokesman. “We found that it is worth retaining the older workers, even if they are often slower, because the quality is higher and the overall productivity stays the same or improves.”

German industry’s willingness to recognize and accept the fact that workers are sometimes ill can benefit both employers and employees, according to experts, who point to the H1N1 swine flu that hit Europe and the United States. The U.S. economy was in crisis so most American workers who had the signs of a cold or influenza showed up at work – and struggled. Ultimately, 7 million Americans caught swine flu and were forced to take long sick leaves. By comparison, Germans who stayed home when they first began to feel unwell recovered much faster, and as a result, the country had one of its lowest number of sick days ever that year and among the lowest worldwide.

Ms. Schäplitz, who has now worked at the dental surgery for three years, appears baffled when asked if she worried about losing her job when she called in sick. “Why would I? I was being responsible by staying home,” she said. “I would not trust a nurse who could not even treat herself.”

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