When you live a country that’s renowned for its work ethic and respected for its productivity, how do you deal with the pressure to live up to extremely high standards?
In our series on “The Working World,” we’re looking at how different cultures deal with the challenges of modern work, and how countries are adapting to address the problems. In part one, we explored how Japan’s work style reform laws are affecting office life. In part two, we examined the impact of France’s El Khomri law, which was enacted to establish “the right to disconnect.” Here in part three, we’ll look at work culture in Germany.
According to a 2015 Gallup survey, 24% of Germans reported feeling tired or burned out by work. So what might be causing the rising stress? The accelerating pace of modern work? A changing economic landscape with new global competitors? Cultural expectations to be both perfect and productive?
To get perspectives from Germany, we spoke with Jenny Wiethölter, PR Manager in the DACH region, and Linus Haferkemper, Head of Customer Success for Europe’s DACH and Nordics regions, both from the Dropbox office in Hamburg.
The price of perfectionism
“The general German attitude would be, ‘We can only get something out there if it’s perfect,’” says Jenny. “Our automotive industry is built on people being very critical, wanting to make things better and better. There’s not so much of this startup attitude of ‘It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to try something.’ This is part of a public discussion that we should be more like this, embracing failure, etc. But I think we’re not there yet.”
“You get everything in perfect condition and ironed out carefully, then you go. But then you go a full throttle. Then you have a car that goes 250 on the Autobahn.”
“I really agree with all that Jenny said,” says Linus. “This attitude, I think, fits perfectly into the tech world. At Dropbox, and in the SaaS world overall, you do whatever you can prove with data. ‘We measured something and then we act on it.’”
The renowned precision of German engineering in the auto industry depends on this slow, meticulous approach. “You get everything in perfect condition and ironed out carefully, then you go,” says Linus. “But then you go a full throttle. Then you have a car that goes 250 on the Autobahn easy. But you have to get everything perfect first.”
But does the focus on flawlessness come at a cost?
“Tesla was the first mover and came up with all these technologies and innovations,” says Jenny. “And I feel like the German auto industry—my brother works in it—was observing for quite some time. Now, slowly, they’re releasing engines. They’re better than the first Tesla because they’ve already learned from Tesla’s mistakes. But they would not bring out an electric car that is not good enough.”
Though Linus sees echoes of this attention to detail in the data-driven mindset of the US tech world, he’s curious why the two countries have such different attitudes about the value of trial and error. Does the same careful craftsmanship that produces perfection also have a downside? “I think what prevents Germans from developing the next breakthrough, like another Dropbox, is that we’d never ship a product that’s 80 percent done and iterate on the rest and be fast,” says Linus.
“Where is this leading us?”
Aside from its possible impact on innovation, perfectionism can have other downsides as well. Researchers say the inner critic that drives perfectionists to excel may also lead to depression, anxiety, and stress.
In German culture, there’s clearly tension between perfection and productivity. But is there greater pressure to make things perfect or produce more, faster?
Is the burnout epidemic the result of too many hours in the office perfecting every detail—or too much pressure to stay accessible all the time?
Linus says he believes a lot depends on how one is raised and the early experiences that shape your work ethic. For example, he recalls a time when he was 11 and began cooking in the best restaurant in his hometown.
“In a good hotel kitchen, you feel pressure from both ends: Speed or productivity and perfection,” says Linus. As a result, he says he’s become obsessed with planning and preparation. “I have a hard time standing still. There is always stuff to do.”
This kind of pressure—even when it comes from within—can lead to burnout. And Linus isn’t the only one feeling the weight. In 2016, burnout had become so widespread in Germany, Wall Street Journal called it “an epidemic” and reported on new measures by companies who were taking action in response.
But is this epidemic the result of too many hours in the office perfecting every detail—or too much pressure to stay accessible all the time?
“Digitization and technology actually made us much more productive than decades ago,” says Jenny. “But you know what we did? We didn’t use this extra time to follow hobbies or spend more time with our family. We just took all the extra productivity energy and work even more. Where is this leading us? There is a limit.”
And for many, leaving worries about work at the office isn’t easy.
“I think people that experience burnout definitely have a tendency to take home things they experience at work,” says Linus. “As soon as you have troubles to switch off, when you go home or you’re out with your wife and kids, you still think about that blog post your boss wants you to finish in two days, or that meeting that you have to run next week.”
“When I started my career, there were no emails on a smartphone,” recalls Jenny. “I was free on the evening. I was free on the weekend. If something bad were to happen, someone would have called. Nowadays, it’s always this pressure on a Sunday: ‘Should I check my emails? Maybe something bad happened.’ But once you check them, you’re already on again.”
“Communication has become somewhat faster, but also fragmented,” adds Linus. “Messaging apps give us the opportunity to become more informal and build deeper relationships, which is great. At the same time, I personally experienced a phase where I felt it was ‘too much,’ so I set certain boundaries. Today, I’ve found a good way for myself: No app except the telephone sends notifications. If my clients have an urgent topic, they know they should call. With this change, I only need to check emails twice a day.”
To help workers who have trouble unplugging from work after hours and on vacation, some companies have introduced new rules and initiatives.
In 2014, Daimler introduced a “Mail on Holiday” policy that gives employees the option of having all their emails automatically deleted while they’re out on vacation. The auto-responder system notifies the sender that the email will be deleted, but gives them the option to email a colleague or try again after the employee returns from vacation.
Jenny notes there are also many coaches, workshops, and therapists who specialize in coping with stress. “Bigger companies here in Germany, they have psychiatrists that work with burnout patients. They have entire departments that are dedicated to health and burnout prevention.”
Why privacy is a primary concern
In Germany, another area where a measured, careful approach wins out over the “move fast and break things” mentality is in data privacy.
There’s a good reason why most Germans are focused on security and protective of privacy.
Recently, German regulators announced they would restrict Facebook from combining data collected from users on third-party sites such as WhatsApp and Instagram.
There’s a good reason why most Germans are so focused on security and protective of privacy, says Linus.
“The history that our recent ancestors have gone through until the German reunification has really made us more sensitive to these topics,” he explains. “A good friend of mine, his father was a priest in the former Eastern Germany. In his professional time, he questioned that regime. A few years ago, all those files that the Stasi had, were made public. He had two huge files of papers, photos. They went to his apartment and they searched everything.”
Though Linus was young when that happened, those events had a big impact on a lot of the people he deals with on a day-to-day basis.
“We have this dark spot in our recent history,” says Linus. “Whether we are too security-conservative or not, it helps to understand why a German is less open to a public cloud.”
“We’re talking about times when you couldn’t trust your own neighbor because they might spy on you, and share sensitive information about you,” adds Jenny. “It wasn’t guaranteed that you could talk the way we can today. Even worse, during the 3rd Reich, your genetics or medical information—people with another political attitude, and people who were disabled—lots of people were discriminated against for who they were. To have this kind of information out there is frightening for people who lived through that time. And they probably have passed on this caution to the next generations.”
Just as a cautious mindset could affect the pace of innovation, stricter policies on data privacy could affect the way companies do business in Germany. The question is: do the benefits of a careful approach outweigh the potential toll on progress?
“I believe we should dare more and embrace failure,” says Jenny. “But who knows, maybe in a couple of years other countries will follow a stricter approach towards privacy as well? My grandmother used to say, ‘Let’s count the dead in the end.’ I think that is wise. For companies who offer services in Germany, it is important to play by the rules. To take privacy seriously is essential for doing business here.”
The end of an era?
There's no doubt the era of disruptive innovation has wielded outsized influence in the last decade. But lately, some are seeing signs of a sea change. And if the era is coming to an end, the German way of doing things could hold valuable lessons about where tech and work culture is heading next.