German Lessons: You’re allowed to be sick

Posted on 07.03.2012


Something I’ve been paying a lot of attention to lately over here is the way we handle being sick and what we do about work when we ARE sick.

While I don’t know how it is for everyone else in the US, save for a few accounts I’ve heard from friends, I can relate how my sickness issues played out.

At my last job, a person was only given 3 or 5 sick days per year, and then their vacation time (after 3 years, I only got 2 weeks of vacation. Not 14 days, 10). There was always the short- or long-term disability option, but I’ve only recently known one person who’s used it.

Sick days didn’t always require a doctor’s note, but if my office didn’t believe someone, they asked for one, and it was also required AFTER you went over your year’s worth of sick days. If you used too many, it might come out of your vacation time.

At the job before that, I was a contracted employee. So I could be sick whenever I wanted to be, but I wasn’t going to get paid to not be at work.

On top of all of this, there was the bs one got for being sick. Most of the time, we were made to feel bad for not going in to work if we couldn’t walk or drive our cars. And when I relapsed for the first and second times, I distinctly got the impression that some of my coworkers didn’t believe I was that bad, and wondered why I couldn’t come in anyway and be generally ineffective.

Then there were my friends who got pregnant: most often the easiest option was to just quit their jobs, or else they’d have to deal with endless phone calls and emails during maternity leave, along with ‘when are you coming back’ discussions every week, as if they were able to leave a newborn so soon. A few of my friends were just pushed out of their jobs, while others had to keep working from home.

It’s really hard to get sick in these kinds of conditions.

So imagine my surprise at the way the Germans treat sick days. If you’re sick, they want you to stay home. If it’s more than one day, they’d like to see a doctor’s note. They won’t take your vacation time away (which starts at a minimum of 22 days per year) if you’re sick. They won’t (often) bother you at home when you’re sick.

When you have a baby, there is a state-mandated 2-3 years of what’s called ‘Kinderzeit’ (child time) that you can take off from work and still receive pay from your job in order to raise your child. If the father is interested, he can split the time with you from his job and you can BOTH take the time off, or save it for later. Amazing? You can’t get fired for being pregnant or having a baby.

Talk about relaxed. The only pressure I’ve ever felt from anybody at my current job was from my American boss, who no doubt still has that ‘work even when under the weather’ attitude. I’m learning to be a German and enjoy all of the time that’s allowed. I’m also learning how to say ‘no’ more. To everything.

Add this to the social (mostly free) healthcare, shorter workdays and longer vacation time, and it really does seem like some odd kind of Utopia. At the very least, if feels like ‘opposite land’. Something is being done right and I’m ok with it.

Posted in: German Lessons