Things to be aware of under German labour law when you get sick

Things to be aware of under German labour law when you get sick

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When you are sick, your workplace is often one of the last things on your mind, but what does the law say about working when you’re ill? Jean-Baptiste Abel takes a closer look at what you need to know in terms of German employment law, so you can rest easy and focus on your recovery.

What do I have to do when I get sick in Germany? 

If you fall ill and cannot fulfill your duties as laid out in your employment contract, you are required to immediately inform your employer that you will be absent and for how long. 

The law does not prescribe the form in which this must be done, so you can do this in person or via telephone, text, WhatsApp message, or even fax! Likewise, the law does not specify to whom exactly you must report your absence to, so it could be your direct supervisor, the HR department, or someone else. 

However, in many companies, there are binding or at least standard procedures for this, so familiarise yourself with what is required or recommended at yours. Your employment contract may also contain more specific requirements that you will need to follow.

The notification that you are ill is called a “Krankmeldung“ (sick note) in German. When calling in sick, the law does not require you to also inform your company of what important work needs to be done or what is particularly urgent, but depending on the severity of your illness and the urgency of your tasks, it may be advisable to at least briefly provide this information to your colleagues.

When do I need a doctor's note? 

According to the law, you only need a doctor's confirmation that you are unable to perform your work due to illness from the fourth day of illness. The doctor will also provide a prognosis of how long this illness will last. This certificate is colloquially called "Krankschreibung" in German, and because prior to 2023 it was printed on a yellow piece of paper, it is sometimes also called a “Gelbe Zettel” (yellow slip).

This means that you can stay off sick for three days without having to be examined by a doctor. But be careful: your employment contract may stipulate that you have to provide a medical certificate from the first day of illness. So be sure to check the specifications in your contract.

Your employer will retrieve the sick note directly from your health insurance provider (who will be informed by your doctor), so you do not need to give them the paper certificate that your doctor provides you with. 

While your health insurance provider will tell your employer how long you will be off sick, they will not disclose the medical diagnosis. However, your diagnosis will be on the sick note that you receive from your doctor, and so if you want to keep this private I would advise you not to show this note to your employer. 

Do I have to stay at home when I am on sick leave? 

When you are on sick leave, you must refrain from doing anything that could impede your recovery. So, it may be perfectly reasonable to stay home and lie in bed, but other illnesses do not require bed rest, so it is perfectly fine to go for a walk or do other things that would not harm your recovery. 

Of course, it could trigger some justification pressure if you happen to bump into your supervisor or colleagues while outside and engaging in recreational activities, but there is no reason, for example, to prevent someone who is on sick leave for mental health issues from taking a jog.

What can I expect for my salary when I'm on sick leave? 

Provided you have already been employed for at least four weeks without interruption, you will continue to receive your full salary from your employer for the first six weeks. Employees must always be paid the salary they would have earned if they had not fallen ill. Incidentally, this applies to all employment relationships, including people in marginal employment relationships (mini-jobs) or temporary jobs.

What will happen if I have not recovered from my illness after six weeks? 

After six weeks, your employer's obligation to keep paying your wages ends. If you are still unwell at this point and unable to work, you are entitled to sick pay (Krankengeld). This is paid by your health insurance and amounts to 70 percent of your gross earnings and capped at 90 percent of your net earnings. Sick pay is paid for a maximum of 72 additional weeks.

Can I be dismissed because of the illness?

You generally do not have to fear dismissal because of a one-time illness, even if it lasts for a long period. However, termination due to your illness is possible in principle via the Dismissal Protection Act (Kündigungsschutzgesetz). 

In simple terms, this applies to an employment relationship that has existed for six months or more and where there are more than 10 employees in the company, but the hurdles for dismissal are particularly high, and the employer must make considerable efforts before they can legally issue a notice of termination.

Terminations are more commonly due to behavioural reasons where the employee has not followed the prescribed procedure for reporting and taking sick leave. Violations of these obligations may result in a written warning, and if you violate these requirements more frequently, your employer may terminate the relationship entirely. In this instance, it is not dismissal due to illness but conduct, so familiarise yourself with the prescribed regulations so you do not jeopardise your employment.

Can I be dismissed during illness?

There is no restriction on terminating your employment during illness. While it is difficult to end an employment relationship because of illness, it alone does not protect you from it.

What if I get sick while on vacation?

If you fall ill while on vacation, you can have the vacation days that you were unable to use credited back to you by your employer. But be warned: you need a medical certificate from the first day, not just the fourth day. Your employer must also take foreign sick certificates into account, so it does not necessarily have to be a doctor in Germany.

Got any more questions about sick leave and German labour law? Jean-Baptiste Abel is happy to help expats and internationals in Germany familiarise themselves with their rights and obligations. Make an appointment for a consultation today!

Jean-Baptiste Abel


Jean-Baptiste Abel

Jean-Baptiste started his own legal practice in Berlin in 2019. After a career in political advocacy in labor law - including as an expert witness in the German Bundestag -...

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