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35 hour week – does it work?


Staff shortages are a problem in almost all industries. Nevertheless, more and more companies are even voluntarily offering their employees shortened working hours with the same pay. A contradiction?

Private sector competitors of Deutsche Bahn operate around a third of all local trains. Most of them already have a collective agreement with the GDL, including a gradual reduction in working hours to 35 hours. When asked how this fits in with the acute shortage of personnel, the managing director of her association gives a clear answer: The hope is to attract skilled workers so that they can take up the profession of train driver. Because, says Matthias Stoffregen from Mofair eV: “We can't care less if the four-day week has already become established in other industries.”

IG Metall has been fighting for the introduction of the 35-hour week since the 1970s. In 1996 it was introduced in the metal collective agreements for West Germany, and now also for employees in East Germany. Almost ten percent of all employees in Germany have what the GDL is now demanding and DB's competitors have already accepted.

And it sounds entirely plausible that potential workers would rather stand in a workshop for 35 hours than move a locomotive for a comparable wage but significantly more hours.

Positive experiences in different Industry sectors

Restaurateurs also complain about a shortage of skilled workers. Here, too, employers try to attract skilled workers with reduced working hours. For example, the 25hours Hotels, which operate a dozen hotels in major German-speaking cities. Employees here only work four days a week, one hour longer than before, a total of 36 hours – with the same wages.

“We notice that we have a constant stream of applications and many applicants choose us because they say: I have a four-day week,” says Zoe Grünwaldt, human resources manager at 25hours. The one hour more per day means less overtime and shifts can be planned better, according to the human resources manager. Employees are more motivated, work better, and there is less need for expensive temporary workers. “It works for us.”

In Great Britain, the effect of shortened working hours was scientifically examined in 61 companies: fluctuation and sick leave were more than halved, and sales even increased slightly with the same number of employees. After the pilot test ended, 56 companies voluntarily maintained the four-day week.

“Employees more motivated and healthier”

The medium-sized entrepreneur Timo Goekeler produces special tools for measuring devices south of Stuttgart. With the same wages, people only work four days – 34 hours a week. This also saves energy costs.

Goekeler noticed that his employees in the office were saving working time through more rational organization and digitalization – and passed this “digital dividend” on to his employees. This also benefits quality in production, where very delicate work has to be carried out in a highly concentrated manner.

The entrepreneur originally wanted to attract skilled workers by reducing working hours. After a year, he noticed that with the same number of employees – despite fewer working hours – sales and profits had increased in double digits. “My employees are more motivated and also healthier,” says Goekeler. “In Baden-Württemberg we had 4.7 percent sick leave last year. In our case it was not even half of that at 2.2 percent.”

Less prosperity through less work?

Oliver Stetten researches working time models at the employer-oriented Institute of German Economy (IW) in Cologne. Shorter working hours could potentially lead to higher productivity in some companies, said Stetten. However, the expert believes that this is by no means transferable to all industries and companies. A train driver, for example, cannot simply drive faster. “And it may not be useful for doctors to operate faster.”

But above all: In the coming years, an increasing number of baby boomers will retire and the number of workers will decline. If fewer employees work fewer hours overall – who should do all the work? And how can the country's prosperity be maintained?

Work longer through more fitness?

Management consultant Andrea Wetzel disagrees. She has already advised dozens of companies on how they can introduce shortened working hours as effectively as possible. In her experience, this almost always works. She also points to lower levels of sickness and sees overall economic potential. “If I have three days to regenerate, I stay healthier, am fit longer and can work longer,” says Wetzel. “That means: Even as I get older, I'm still tapping into resources.” If, for example, in a family the man has one working day off in a four-day week, the woman, who often only works part-time, can also work one day more.

In fact, there is still no scientific study in Germany about the effects of a 35-hour or four-day week. A pilot project started at the beginning of February with 50 companies is being scientifically supported by the University of Münster. It remains to be seen whether the results will be similarly positive. However, the number of companies in which employees have similarly short working hours as employees in the metal industry for more than 25 years is already increasing. It currently looks as if this trend can hardly be stopped.

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