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Happiness at Work in Germany

An opportunity to create workplaces where both productivity and well-being thrive

Punctual, efficient, formal, hardworking, traditional, and accurate. These are some common stereotypes about Germans at work. From an outside perspective, employee well-being, fun, happiness, and self-leadership are not necessarily associated with German work culture. How come? As a Dutch organizational psychologist – having worked and lived in Germany for almost 20 years – I´m sharing my intercultural perspective in this blog.

Germany, known for its economic strength and productive work culture, hasn't fully embraced happiness in the workplace for a long time. I believe that there are three main explanations for this:

  1. Cultural Values: Intercultural research confirms that German culture traditionally places a strong emphasis on discipline, hard work, achievement and success - a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organisational life. School in Germany starts at 6 years and is marked by “der Ernst des Lebens” (“the seriousness of life”). Performance and being the best in field is highly valued and early required as the school system separates children into different types of schools at the age of ten. Opposite of this value-system are cultures in which quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. In these cultures, “liking what you do” is a stronger motivator that “wanting to be the best” and might therefore be a more natural fit to pursuing personal happiness at work and in life.

  2. Historical Legacy: Germany has a history of industrialization and a strong focus on productivity, which might have overshadowed the importance of employee well-being and happiness in the past. Take the commonly used word „Feierabend“, for example, which essentially means "celebratory evening". It encompasses the idea that once the workday is over, employees should have time for personal freedom, enjoyment, socializing and engaging in activities they are passionate about. The concept of "Feierabend" dates back to the 19thcentury industrialization period in Germany, when workers fought for better working conditions and shorter working hours. As a result, the idea of having dedicated time for relaxation and pleasure after work gained prominence. Even though marking the end of the working day can contribute to a healthy work-life balance, the word “Feierabend” also implies that the time at work is the opposite of anything that is engaging, enjoyable and something to be passionate about.

  3. Management Styles: Germany's professional landscape is often characterized by hierarchical structures, emphasizing respect for authority. These structures might not always encourage open communication and addressing personal emotions, which are key factors in fostering workplace happiness. Historically, work and life were seen as strictly separated, which was stressed by addressing everyone associated with work, such as colleagues, leaders, customers, suppliers and other interfaces with the formal “Sie” and everybody outside of work with the informal “Du”. This legacy still prevails in more traditional German organisations and throughout more senior management levels.

While Germany may not have fully embraced workplace happiness historically, there is growing awareness globally about the importance of employee well-being due to trends in demographics, technology, sustainability and the pandemic aftermath. As an effect, many companies in Germany have been making efforts to create happier and more balanced work environments in recent years. I believe that now is the chance for German organizations to balance tradition with new work trends and create workplaces where both productivity and well-being thrive. Germany, the time is now!

Written by Selma Fehrmann, organizational psychologist and positive leadership expert. As trainer, consultant & leadership coach (ICF PCC), Selma empowers organizations to build positive and strength-based workplaces. Together with the FLORITIVE team, she represents the international week of happiness at work in Germany.

Picture: Tanja Deuß, Knusperfarben

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