Conventional business wisdom now calls for employee "flexibility." But too often that leads to work and rest becoming so intermingled that a hard-earned freedom gets lost.
MUNICH — The way Germans work has slowly been changing over the last few years. Traditionally, employees have had to be in the office during very specific working hours, keeping on and off-the-job time quite distinct.
But with advances in information technology that connect people to their offices, some employees sought to work from home more often to spend more time with their children.
But at the same time, it has become an integral part of modern workplace demands that the employee is available outside normal office working hours. Thus it becomes part of his/her remit now to finish that presentation while sitting in the living room in the evening, to respond to a boss' email, or be available to clients via mobile phone during the weekend.
Sometimes it will be the employer that demands these extra working hours from the employee; other times it is the employee who starts out asking to work from home. But ultimately, this particular mix of employer-demanded and self-imposed extra working hours can lead to a whole new kind of strain on the employee.
Germany's Employer's Association is going one step further now. They want to abolish the eight-hour working day, which has long been used as a benchmark as to how long an employee can be expected to work. Business leaders insist that they do not want staff to work any longer than eight hours a day, but rather create more flexibility in view of changing lifestyles and growing global competition.
But the question remains as to what that will mean for employees in Germany, where the boundaries between work and rest are becoming increasingly blurred. Some 16 % of Germans complain about the fact that their gainful employment is increasingly leading to an overlapping of work and time spent with family.
Long and constantly shifting working hours are regarded as being the main cause of psychological strain in the workplace. More work and more flexibility obviously leave their mark.
But employers are in the right when they object to their employees' concerns of increased working hours. On average, Germans actually work fewer hours now than they did in the past. Entire sectors of the economy, such as the automotive industry, have been heavily regulated by trade unions to protect employees, so that no one works longer than the collective wage agreement states and that no one will have to deal with work-related emails on their smartphone after leaving the workplace.
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Modern office life. Photo: Lars Ploughmann
But the threat of blurring the boundaries between work and rest is most in evidence where trade unions have very little influence. This is the case where employees with few qualifications work for a company without a collective wage agreement and do not have any power to negotiate better contracts. The same applies to workers in the so-called "knowledge economy" who people the desks in many an office. The share of men who regularly work more than nine hours a day has doubled in the last 20 years.
The legally regulated eight-hour working day is a very powerful symbol. The labor movement demanded its introduction, which eventually began to spread early last century. The government should not get rid of this important standard, but defend it to prevent an insidious spread of work-related stress.
It would be in the interest of the employee if collective wage agreements were to limit the amount of time that an employee can work, and specifically address how availability after hours via computer and smartphones should be handled. Where such protections are not granted, the government should step in to officially regulate such issues. The digital age has turned working life upside down, creating new dangers for employees that require new means for protecting them.