Take, for instance, a time-consuming job, one or two hobbies, family and friends, and add in the occasional wish for a bit of peace and quiet. Then try to cope with packing all of these aspects into a single 24-hour day – it’s an overload waiting to happen. So, how do you achieve a balance between the professional and the personal? What do German people imagine a successful work-life balance to be? And how far do their personal and working lives match up to this ideal? Many busy Germans encounter difficulties balancing work and family life. The burdens it entails don’t just stem from external factors; one’s own state of mind holds just as much influence. The order in which you prioritize your affairs, and how more or less happy you are with your lot, are determined by the ‘type’ of person you are.
Generally, most Germans are prepared to sacrifice their free time and family for the sake of work. A good two thirds of them state that they’re willing to accept any consequence, as long as the job is well-paid. What is more, almost half concentrate fully on their professional life, building their leisure activities around it with the time they have left. Almost as many are willing to set other aspects of life further down than work in their list of priorities if it means they can start climbing the career ladder. In concrete terms, this result tells us that work would make almost a third of Germans sacrifice their hobbies and 18% give up the opportunity to have (more) children. The same number of people are prepared to disappoint their friends so that they can work more, and a further 10% would even take health risks. These figures are the results of a large-scale study undertaken by the GfK Group in collaboration with FINANCIAL TIMES DEUTSCHLAND. Its main objective was to comprehensively assess how professionals in Germany prioritize their families, their leisure time and their jobs, as well as how they deal with the recurrent conflicts this presents and what kind of health issues they encounter. Over 2,600 working Germans took part in the study, entitled ‘Living and working in Germany’. GfK also looked at the possibilities available to respondents that help them to reconcile family and working life, and asked them the areas in which they thought this help in finding a balance could be improved.
Germans by no means share an opinion on the balance between work and leisure. The amount of time people are prepared to invest in their career depends on the ‘type’ they fit into. Work is far and away the most important aspect in life for the ‘work-driven’. Their careers take precedence over everything else in their lives, which is why two thirds of these people forego their hobbies for work. Over half would set aside their social lives in favor of work, and 44% would refrain from having (more) children. This picture is quite different for those who see themselves as ‘family-oriented’. Only 9% of the latter are able to imagine a life without children, and they generally ascribe more value to time spent with friends or pursuing hobbies than their work-driven counterparts do. Only 11% of the work-driven would prioritize friendship over work, and 26% tend to still indulge in their hobbies. The ‘unifiers’; those who wish to bring together as many different aspects of their lives as possible, are of a similar opinion to the ‘work-driven’ in this regard. The possibility of having fewer social connections, within their family or among their circle of friends, appears to be the least important issue for unifiers. The ‘independents’, who stress the importance of maintaining hobbies and a vibrant social life whilst working day-to-day, are the ones who wish least of all to have children of their own. Of this group, 19% would refrain from procreating to preserve their working lives.
When they have to choose between a career and bringing up children, the family-oriented among us most often tend to go for the latter. Within this group, 86% would change their job or drop any professional mobility plans if bringing up an infant requires it of them. Almost three quarters would even give up their job completely for the sake of their children – a completely different response to the one given by the other groups. The independents reject this notion the most, with less than 1% saying they could warm to the idea of permanently swapping life at the office for looking after a child. Responses given by both unifiers and work-driven people all fell somewhere between these two extremes, with the former choosing more frequently to put children first.
A similar picture emerged when the groups were asked what a relationship means to them. Here, too, the family-oriented tended to be willing to make the greatest sacrifices, with independents making the smallest. The work-driven and the unifiers made up the middle of the pack once again. Around a third of people from these last two groups were willing to put aside professional mobility or tolerate loss of income if it meant strengthening a relationship as a result. Willingness to change job was even a little higher.
As the French actor and director Jacques Tati once said, “Become immersed in your work, but don’t get in too deep”. Germans tend to only partly heed this advice. The majority of Germans in work (57%) complain about it being too much of a strain, a complaint mainly caused by time and efficiency pressure or by working overtime. These aspects of work often form part and parcel of everyday life, especially for the work-driven. Although work is of very high significance to them, they rarely derive pleasure from the strenuous aspects of their job. The majority of work-driven people are unlikely to achieve a high standard under time pressure, for example. In fact, time pressure has exactly the opposite effect: three quarters of people who rush from deadline to deadline find the process detrimental. Overtime and efficiency pressure, which work-driven people experience especially frequently (around 60% on a regular basis), are both regarded negatively by the majority.
Too much exertion is clearly taking its toll on respondents’ health. Out of those asked, 58% suffer from some kind of affliction. The work-driven group reached the top of the pile again, with a higher number than the average as 63% of them reported to have an ailment of some kind. However, they do not suffer alone – the family-oriented are affected in equal measure. The independents and the unifiers tend to only rarely suffer from health issues such as headaches and insomnia – perhaps because they strike more of a balance in their free time than the other respondents.
Public discussions about shortages in qualified personnel, burn-outs and other health risks are not simply bypassing companies. An increasing number of organizations are looking for ways to support their staff when it comes to achieving a work-life balance. To this end, working time accounts and flexitime models have been introduced, and are used by 36% and 30% of Germans in work respectively, who, in turn, are satisfied with them on the whole.
Those who make the most use of part-time work are the family-oriented (37%), a result accounted for by the high number of women in this group. In all other groups, however, reduced working time seems to be a rarer occurrence. Other relief schemes, such as having a home office, job sharing or the fiercely disputed parental leave system, have seen little use so far. Breaks of several months are what Germans in work tend to take least of all, with only 1% going on sabbatical leave – a regrettable situation, according to companies’ staff and the self-employed. If it were up to them to decide, 15% say they would be happy to take a sabbatical year. Part-time work, home office and parental leave are all similarly desired. The most popular systems are working time accounts and flexitime models (these are wish list preferences for 19% and 21% of Germans in work, respectively). Job sharing, however, is at the bottom of the list.
The creation of various time models aside, employers can do even more to help their staff strike a balance. According to working Germans, service for families is the issue most in need of improvement. For example, 22% wish for the coordination of children’s daycare or an appropriate guidance service. Almost just as many are pleading for targeted initiatives for female staff. Of the respondents, 18% also expressed the wish for executives to work part-time. The two groups who saw the biggest need for action when asked about these aspects were the family-oriented and the work-driven.
There is still a great deal to achieve before the wish for a balanced family and professional life comes true. One approach would be for superiors to take stronger action to help their staff unite work and family. In any case, more than half of respondents still see shortcomings in corporate culture as far as this issue is concerned. This is not helped when even bosses themselves stay in the office longer than their family would like – an occurrence to which 52% of Germans in work testify. They would benefit more from somebody who sets a good example. This would help more than any legislation or regulations on striking a work-life balance would, because as the old proverb goes, “words are but small, examples stand tall”.
Data source: GfK Verein (Study: Living and working in Germany 2012).
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