Why Berlin has got it right when it comes to working life

By Anna Williamson 

Start a conversation with any Brit over the age of 25 or so, and I guarantee that within the first three minutes of small talk this question will inevitably come up: “So, what do you do?”.

Now, I’m not saying that an interest in your profession is exclusive to people from the UK, but I am quickly learning that the speed with which this question comes up is a small indicator of a more widespread attitude. But let’s back up…

Someone recently said to me that everyone moves to Berlin for one of two reasons: work, or love. Happily, I fit neatly into that second box, and moved to this incredible city to be with the man I love, in the country that I love – two birds, one stone. By definition, however, that means that my relocation to Berlin was not a career move, and I admit that somewhat abruptly quitting my job in marketing and moving over here as quickly as I could pack my boxes wasn’t the most obvious next step on the employment ladder.

Now, I am very happy with my choice. Living off my savings for a while is a small price to pay (metaphorically at least – Club Mate and Döners don’t come for free) to be able to live in Berlin. Yet somehow, whenever someone asks me the inevitable question about my employment, I feel pressured to respond with the type of shame and guilt often associated with some sort of rehab programme: “Hi, I’m Anna, and I’m unemployed”.

Once I started to think about it, I realised that this reflex to justify myself only occurs – or at least is far more pronounced – when I speak to people from back home.

In the UK, what type of job you have is of huge importance. Your career defines who you are, how successful you are, and which circle of society you belong to. We are taught to think about what kind of career we want from a ludicrously young age, and after you turn 18, pretty much everything you do at school/university or in your free time should be geared towards bulking out your CV for that perfect job.

Taking a career break is unthinkable (unless we’re talking about the accepted one year of travel after university which can be passed off as gaining “life experience”) and being unemployed for any reason whatsoever is so shameful that I know many people who refuse to claim unemployment benefits even when they’re perfectly entitled to them.

This isn’t to say that Berlin is a kind of utopia where status and money mean nothing, but people are more accustomed to alternative ways of living and working. There are so many artists, musicians and freelancers in the city who have successfully created a work-life balance – one that is missing in the UK. What’s more, I’ve actually heard a number of people here refer to being deliberately unemployed with the purpose of enjoying yourself for a while as “Berlin-ing”.


Germans are stereotypically famed for their love of efficiency and strict rules, and I expected this to be reflected in the workplace more than anywhere else. Imagine my surprise, then, when I got to Berlin and started hearing about jobs with relatively great salaries, generous flexitime, and office perks ranging from free lunches to an in-house masseuse.

Berlin has seemed to crack the work-life balance far more successfully than Britain but we’ll need some cold hard facts to prove it. How German of me.

As I hunted through job sites, I constantly found employers willing to give their employees various benefits. Paid travel and food expenses and extremely flexible working hours with options to work from home came up again and again. What I saw was pretty encouraging, but I needed more facts.

According to the OECD Better Life Index (a very useful resource when comparing all kinds of data across countries), almost 13 percent of UK employees work “very long hours” of 50 hours or more per week on average. In comparison, just under 5% of German employees do the same.


When I looked at time off, I found that in the UK full-time employees are entitled to 28 days of annual leave. Germans are only entitled to 24 days leave, but they are then also given all bank holidays off in addition to this, which gives an extra 9-13 days paid leave per year, depending which state you live in. So, Brits are working longer hours and more days than Germans. Is it worth it?

This is obviously tricky to measure. GDP (gross domestic product) per hour is the usual way of measuring a country’s productivity and, once again, the OECD has done the heavy lifting for me. In 2017, Germany ranked 16th and the UK ranked 28th out of the 43 countries measured that year.

Economically speaking Britain’s longer working hours aren’t paying off. So, maybe Germany is onto something with its “work smarter, not harder” attitude.

The government seems to think so, as its Ladenschlussgesetz law means that supermarkets close no later than 10pm and pretty much everything is shut on Sundays, to ensure workers are getting proper time off.

Although not an enforced law yet, many German companies such as Volkswagen and Allianz also operate with Right to Disconnect rules, which prohibit companies from contacting their employees during non-work hours. Daimler, for example, has a policy which “enables employees automatically to delete incoming emails during holidays, with the sender being informed they can contact an alternative designated employee if necessary”.

It’s unlikely to become a federal law any time soon, but the fact that such a law is even being discussed shows the kind of mindset that the German people and government have about being allowed a life outside of work.

Of course, there are surely tons of jobs in Germany which have long hours, high pressure, and bosses from hell. However, I think that the OECD statistics and the laws in place show that in general Germany goes a lot further than the UK to make sure that its employees are happy in the workplace and are able to enjoy themselves outside of work too.

Berlin shouldn’t be taken as a representative of the whole of Germany since the city is known for being exceedingly liberal, but talking to Germans here has definitely given me a strong impression that while your job might be important to you, it is nowhere near as important as your free time.

Since I’m making this wonderful city my new home, I’m going to do my best to ignore my well-ingrained British work ethic, embrace the culture, and keep Berlin-ing for a little while longer.

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