German Workers Deserve a World Cup Break

German workers have their priorities straight.
Is this shirt from a union shop? Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

German workers have their priorities straight.

The Guardian reports that union bosses in Germany are calling on employers to shift working hours to accommodate World Cup matches. Accounting for the time difference between Germany and host country Brazil, group stage matches start as late as 9 p.m. Berlin time, while matches in the round of 16 would kick off after 10 p.m. should Germany advance that far. With many early shifts in industries such as mining and recycling beginning at 6 a.m., unions are asking for a later start to the work day following World Cup matches. German-language Bild newspaper notes that several employers have already agreed to the accommodations.

Queue the outrage from (mostly) American businessmen, appalled that a major economic country would dare sacrifice productivity for the silly whim of men with soccer balls. Of course, that isn't exactly accurate; as I wrote during March Madness, the detriment of major sporting events to work output is highly exaggerated and largely nonexistent. It might make for sexy headlines to say that the NCAA tournament costs employers a billion dollars, but it ultimately underestimates the capacity of workers to compensate for that supposed distraction.

In that way, German workers are even more ahead of the game than American workers during March Madness; they're anticipating late nights and asking for the sanctioned accommodation ahead of time. Germany's businesses are better suited for such adjustments; many already have in place flexible working hours to accommodate the schedules of working mothers.

Countless studies have dispelled the myth that more working hours translates to higher productivity while propelling workplace flexibility as a tool for increasing output. A 2011 study by the International Labor Office concluded that while flexible working conditions generally had a positive impact on productivity, "Flexitime in particular was found to be the most powerful contributor to this indirect factor of worker productivity over the longer term." Germany is actually a good example of this: A 2012 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Germany averaged the third-least number of hours worked per person of the 35 OECD countries surveyed, yet came in ninth in GDP per hour worked.

In fact, economists such as Sebastian Dullien point to Germany's workplace flexibility as one of the key factors that allowed the country to withstand the global financial crisis. A 2012 study by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn explains how flexible working hours helped Germany avoid a massive spike in structural unemployment:

Internal flexibility is particularly attractive for employers in manufacturing industries with high and specific skills that are difficult to replace. ... Most importantly, working time can be adjusted flexibly via working-time accounts. In these accounts, working hours can be accumulated over a relatively long time period. As this allows companies to react to changes in demand without hiring and firing, it favors a stability-oriented personnel policy and compensates for the effects of limited external flexibility (i.e. strict dismissal protection). In fact, the economic crisis was preceded by a boom period in German manufacturing, so that many working-time accounts showed large surpluses which could be balanced after demand collapsed. Surpluses in working-time accounts and overtime declined significantly in the crises and therefore made an important contribution to employment stability. Whilst employment was virtually unchanged from late 2008 to late 2009, the total volume of hours worked declined by about 3 percent.

The OECD adds, "It is likely that the increased working time flexibility has reduced the unemployment-output relationship" in Germany. Not only did flexible working hours help stave off an increase in unemployment; they defied the conventional wisdom that correlates employment and hours worked with productivity.

All this to say that German companies should feel free to give workers some leeway come June. If the majority of your employees are going to stay up late to watch World Cup matches anyway, you might as well let them get a good night's rest before they come in to work the next day.

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