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German men want more work-life balance
German men want more work-life balance
Tatjana Krieger

MUNICH -When is a man a man? The business world has an answer to that: when he works full-time and is focused on his career advancement.

To explore this a little further, we met up at a café in downtown Munich with Norbert Meier (not his real name) who by that definition is only half a man.

Meier is conducting an experiment, using himself as a lab-rat. He has decided to work part-time for three months – three days a week at his usual job, for reduced pay. Meier works as marketing and distribution head for a small software company. "I actually wanted to take a sabbatical. But part-time is a good compromise," he says. He spends the hours he’s out of the office working on his vintage cars or fly-fishing.

According to Elke Holst, a gender studies research director at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin, Meier’s experiment makes the business school graduate a pioneer. Holst’s specialty subject is what men and women want out of their work time.

In a brochure called "Abenteuer Teilzeit: Argumente für Männer" (The Part-Time Adventure: Arguments for Men), Germany’s Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS) puts the number of working men in Germany who would like to work part-time at 77%. However, the Research Institute of the Federal Employment Agency (IAB) put the actual number of men working part-time in 2010 at 17.6%, and that figure includes so-called low-paying irregular jobs.

So where are the men who want to downshift? "They are sacrificing part of their work-life balance to their careers," says Thorsten Alsleben, a consultant with international management consultancy Kienbaum. Men who voluntarily apply for part-time positions are rare, he says, even though working part-time by no means spells career death. "Some employers may have a low budget but they still want top candidates, and part-time jobs are a solution in such cases.”

German law theoretically supports more choice. Since 2001, for example, anybody on a short-term contract who works for longer than six months in a firm with at least 15 employees has a right to a part-time job there. However, cautions Michael Eckert, a lawyer specializing in labor law, "a company can oppose an application for various reasons related to organization and security, or if creating a part-time position would engender disproportionately high costs.”

The law has not therefore contributed to much change for men in the workforce, although things are slowly developing. It is the same with hiring older people, or hiring women in top management: progress takes place at a snail’s pace. In 2010, 3.2 million men worked part-time, 2.4 million more than in 1991. But most of them were low-paying irregular jobs. Only a few of them actually wanted to work part-time.

“Being there” for the kids

Younger men often express the desire to do things differently from their fathers: to work less and take a larger share in the work and responsibility of child rearing, “being there” for the kids. However, when they are actually confronted with the choice, things suddenly look different. Men with families end up working longer hours, two to five hours more per week, than their childless colleagues. "Most women earn less after the birth of a child, because they either switch over to part-time or stop working altogether. Men can often make up all or part of the difference by working more. And men may also be seeing the longer hours as an investment in their future career," says gender researcher Holst. "Even if one holds different views personally, role expectations are deeply anchored.”

Only later on do needs, hobbies, and health take on more importance. Of those in the 60 to 64 age group, 43% work part-time. Other men might want to, but are held back by society’s expectations, the need to earn money, or their own self-image – pressures that Norbert Meier, despite his experiment, says he has not entirely freed himself from.

In spite of the slow start, however, employers will increasingly have to deal with alternative models for working hours. "When a full-time employee comes to us asking to work part-time, we have to take it seriously, and address the issue of how we could distribute work differently," says Bernhard Bachhuber, European human resources director at Avery Dennison packing company. "We look at every single case carefully. We want to keep good people." But doesn’t working part-time spell the end of advancement? "Not necessarily," says Bachhuber. "A promotion is by no means out of the question. Your job content could also change, or the person could be given specific projects to manage."

If the workers' situations change, they can start working longer hours again. Consultant Thorsten Alsleben agrees that a stretch spent working part-time is no longer a blot on a CV, but points out that workers have no legal claim to get their full-time position back. It might happen, but then again maybe not, and they could find themselves with only the option of continuing with that firm on a part-time basis.

And what does Norbert Meier think of all this after his part-time stint? "I’m glad it’s over!" he says. On working days he stayed longer at the office than he usually did when working full-time, and he found he could not stick to his plan not to read office e-mails on his days off. He was also always available on his cell phone.

What Meier experienced is typical. "You need to make sure that 30 hours a week in the office don’t mean you can be reached outside the office 40 or 50 hours a week," Alsleben says. "Whether part-time work turns out to be a trap or an opportunity depends on self-management and on how well-organized the company you work for is."

Meier doesn’t consider his experiment as a failure, but he says it opened no other perspectives for him either personally or professionally -- and that, longer-term, part-time work is not for him.

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At first glance, Mr L seems to be a successful man with a well-rounded life: middle management, happily married, father of two. If you ask him how he is, he responds with a smile and a “Fine thanks”. But everything is not fine. When he was admitted to the psychosomatic clinic Kloster Diessen, Mr L described his emotional life as hollow and empty.

Although outwardly he is still putting on a good face, he has been privately struggling for some time. Everything that used to bring him joy and fun has become simply another chore. He can hardly remember what it feels like to enjoy his life.

For psychotherapist Professor Bert te Wildt, who heads the psychosomatic clinic in Ammersee in Bavaria, Germany, the symptoms of Patient L. make him a prime example of a new and so far under-researched syndrome, that he calls “burn-on”. Working with psychologist Timo Schiele, he has published his findings about the phenomenon in a book, Burn-On.

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