Ten years ago, Antje Schmid would have left her job at an advertising agency in Frankfurt, Germany, and headed out for a stout beer with friends, putting work out of her mind until the next day.
But those were the golden days before smartphones. Today, the 25-year-old German marketer keeps getting emails and calls from co-workers and managers long after clocking out. “The interruptions are constant,” she explained. “Everywhere you go now, work follows you.”
Yet there’s hope that this won’t be the case forever. Last month, German Labor Minister Andrea Nahles funded a study to evaluate the psychological and economic impacts of work-related stress. The findings, which are scheduled for official release in 2016, may trigger legislation that would prohibit employers from contacting workers outside of regular office hours. Such a law, currently being pushed by the powerful multi-service trade union Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, or ver.di, now has a better shot and becoming reality since gaining Nahles’ support.
“There is an undeniable relationship between constant availability and the increase of mental illness,” Nahles told the Rheinische Post. “We have commissioned the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to work out whether it is possible to set load thresholds. We need universal and legally binding criteria.”
What does this mean for workers in Washington State? If the law passes, could it serve as a model for preserving workers’ privacy and rolling back the culture of being on-call for work 24/7?
The German movement is not without precedent. Earlier this year, workers in France adopted a so-called ban on emails after 6 p.m.; however, that labor agreement was not recognized by law. Other large companies like Volkswagen have already implemented policies to better regulate work-related stress. The company Daimler has even decided to allow about 100,000 workers to delete emails that arrive in their inboxes while on vacation. Back in 2011, Volkswagen agreed to prevent its BlackBerry servers from shooting out emails after working hours.
But as well all know, work still creeps into life at home. And this is especially true of Germany, widely known as the punctual, industrious workhorse of Europe. Yet perhaps they’re putting that focus and thoughtfulness to work in other dimensions of life: when Germany ratified its present constitution in 1990, it safeguarded a citizen’s official right to develop one’s personality=. It’s challenging, of course, to develop your character and personal interests when professional life is constantly intruding into your activities at home and on the weekend.
Americans often equate late nights at the office with success and a strong work ethic, but Germans regard it as a symptom of poor time management. “With Germans, while they’re at work, they only work — you’ll rarely hear a radio in the background,” Kohler said. “They consider it a sign of inefficiency if you cannot complete a day’s work in that day. So if you’re staying late at the office, it would often be regarded as a sign of your inability to get the work done.” For those of us guilty of browsing YouTube at work all afternoon and then rushing to complete a project after 6:00, maybe there’s something to this?
Kohler predicts that the government in Berlin will pass some form of legislation to drastically reduce off-hour emails and correspondence, even though drafting such a law would have complicated ripple effects across a wide range of industries. And of course there would be considerable difficulty in enforcing it.
For Schmid, the majority of after-hours emails she gets come from colleagues she’s teamed up with on group projects. She feels that legislation to protect workers from the expectation or obligation to always be on-call would help eliminate the guilt she experiences for not responding until the next day. Although she’s skeptical that a blanket rule could really work.
“Maybe the government could help companies to make up unique rules for their firms, or put pressure on managers,” she said.
If such a law fails to pass, Germany’s powerful labor unions may pressure more companies to implement policies and standards defining when employees have to be available, said Stephen Silvia, an American University professor and expert in German industrial relations.
“There is a long tradition of the German labor movement carving out free time and pushing for working time reduction,” he said. He noted a famous poster from the 1950s, where a smiling 5-year-old child holds his hand up in the air, saying: “On Saturdays, daddy belongs to me.”