Something’s up in Scandinavia. And no, I’m not talking about its high cost of living or many, many hours of sunlight in summer; I’m referring to this region’s ability to excel in multiple measures of work and life satisfaction while the rest of the world struggles to catch on.
Want proof? Scandinavian countries consistently dominate the top spots of the annual World Happiness Report for a variety of reasons, including:
- Finland was just named the world’s happiest country in the same year that its capital, Helsinki, earned the title of best city for work-life balance.
- Norway has won bragging rights as the second-most productive country in the world.
- And Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland are ranked in the top four, respectively, for most gender-equal countries.
Given how much Scandinavians are winning at work and life, I wanted to explore their cultures to find out what we can learn from them about work-life balance.
From the folks who brought you IKEA, Skype, and hygge, below are even more ideas worth stealing from our northern neighbors to apply to your own life wherever you live in the world.
7 Reasons Scandinavian Culture Is Leading The Charge In Work-Life Satisfaction
Let's shed some (northern) light on the ways our neighbors in the north are topping the happiness charts, despite those arctic temperatures.
1. Shorter Work Days And Workweeks
Think you’d get more done if you had more time?
Results from the Nordic nations say otherwise. According to Expert Market, Norwegians work an average of 1,424 hours per year—that’s 359 hours less than Americans—and still have a higher annual GDP per capita than the U.S.
In 2015, some employers in Sweden started switching to six-hour workdays, which yielded promising results: One study found that nurses in Gothenburg who chopped two hours off of their workday took fewer sick days and had more energy.
So what’s at play here? It could be Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
In other words, when you know you’ve got excess time, you’re more likely to dawdle. In a 1967 study, participants who were “accidentally” given 15 minutes to finish a task that could be completed in five minutes took significantly longer than those who were given less time.
When you realize how little time you have, you’re more likely to use that limited resource more efficiently.
2. Generous Parental Leave And Subsidized Child Care
For many parents, the joy of welcoming a child into their lives brings with it new worries about how to balance family with work commitments. For Scandinavians, though, those worries are lessened thanks to government-mandated parental leave.
Sweden offers its workforce 480 days of parental leave at about 80% of their salary. This country has become such a standout when it comes to paternity leave that it’s given rise to the trend of “latte papas,” stylish Swedish dads who push a stroller with one hand while holding a coffee with the other.
The obvious benefit to paternity leave is that the father gets to spend time with his new baby, but there are spillover effects too, as one study found. Not only does the dad’s job satisfaction increase, but the mother’s family relationship satisfaction also gets a boost.
Fathers staying home with their kids has a positive effect on women’s wages, too. Sweden’s Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation found that for each month a father takes parental leave, the mother’s earnings increase by nearly 7%, while seeing no decrease on the father’s earnings.
And Scandinavia’s family-friendliness doesn’t end when the paid parental leave is over. These countries’ laws ensure that children are cared for even after mom and dad re-enter the workforce.
In Denmark, much of child care is paid for by the state with parents paying, at most, 30% of the cost. In Finland, parents can opt for subsidized child care through daycare or a home care allowance of 340 Euros a month per child under three years old.
3. Heaps Of Hygge
Hygge is a Danish word that has no exact English translation but means something like “coziness.” Lately, this quintessentially Scandinavian concept has been all over the home decor scene in the form of chunky throw blankets, ambient lighting, and neutral colors. But at its core, hygge is an interior disposition that focuses on community and bonding.
As Denmark’s official tourism website puts it:
“Hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Cosying up with a loved one for a movie – that’s hygge, too.”
And it’s not hard to believe that hygge and happiness go hand-in-hand. An 80-year Harvard study on adult life found that close relationships are the key to a happy, healthy life.
4. Remote And Flexible Work Structures
In this digital age, remote work is on the rise—and Scandinavia is ahead of the curve. Since the 90s, Finland’s Working Hours Act has allowed workers to adjust their start or end times by up to three hours. As if that weren’t enough, effective January 2020, Finland’s updated act allows employees to determine the timing and location of their work for at least half of their regular working hours.
And if you’re wondering how working from home affects performance, a Stanford study found that remote workers showed a substantial boost in productivity. On top of that, among telecommuters in the study, employee attrition went down by 50%.
5. Consistent Coffee Breaks
How often during your busy workday do you take a break (besides lunch)? For Swedes, the time-honored ritual of fika—translating to something like “coffee break”—remains strong. Once to twice a day, the Swedes step away from their work to sip a coffee, nibble a pastry, and socialize with their colleagues.
While it may seem counterintuitive, taking breaks from work can actually boost your productivity, as science has shown time and again. This is because the human brain works in “sprints,” staying focused for about one hour before needing to rest and recharge. Fika can also promote a stronger sense of camaraderie among your teammates.
6. Plentiful Vacation Days
Enjoying fika with your coworkers is great, but people need more than just a 10-minute break twice a day. And Scandinavia has a solution for that, too. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have laws mandating a minimum of 25 days (or five weeks) of paid vacation—making its employees the recipients of some of the most paid annual leave in the world.
But does more vacation result in less productivity?
Well, if the OECD’s list of the most productive countries in the world is right, then it seems all that time off isn’t hurting Scandinavia’s output. Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway all sit at the top 15, with Norway leading the way at number two.
In addition, a University of Waterloo study found that when participants took more paid vacation days, their overall health and life satisfaction levels increased. That’s reason enough to not feel guilty about booking a vacation!
7. A “We” Mentality
Perhaps the most important factor in Scandinavia’s happiness is difficult to measure and impossible to mandate, but can be summed up in one Danish/Norwegian word: janteloven.
Janteloven comes from a book by Askel Sandemose, in which he tells the story of the fictional Danish town of Jante, where all its citizens sacrifice personal identity for the sake of harmony and unity in the collective whole.
Janteloven is a way of life in Scandinavia, where being average is fine and the focus is on team, rather than individual, accomplishments. It may be a controversial concept, but maybe this overriding concern for the community is part of the recipe for the region’s unrivaled happiness.
As Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, co-editor of the World Happiness Report, told Time Magazine:
“The Scandinavian countries are very big on social support. The top countries, you can see, have societies which are not at each other's throats.”
De Neve added that people in Nordic countries are more likely to pick up and return a stranger’s wallet than citizens of countries lower in the happiness rankings.
In addition, Scandinavians are known for being exceedingly modest. For example, despite Sweden’s successes in business, bragging is discouraged in the workplace. And for years, the Danish beer Carlsberg boasted the slogan of “probably the best beer in the world,” and recently, amended it to “probably not the best beer in the world.”
Don’t Reside In Scandinavia? Here’s How To Work And Live Like You Do
Now, before you rush to buy a one-way ticket to Finland, realize that Scandinavians pay a pretty penny for all that social support. To give you an idea, Denmark’s highest tax rate in 2018 was 55.8%, while the United States maxed out at 37% (both countries have progressive tax systems). And government-mandated programs like subsidized child care come with frustrations, such as the pressure of arbitrary deadlines, as one Norwegian working mom points out.
Even so, don’t write off the Nordic countries’ successes as mere products of social democracy; some of the facets of Scandinavian life mentioned above (fika and hygge) aren’t legislated at all, but are simply ingrained in the culture.
So what can you do if you don’t live in Scandinavia?
Here are some take-home lessons you can implement regardless of your job or location:
Prioritize Family Over Work
Close relationships are an integral part of Scandinavian culture. If you want to improve work-life balance, practice setting boundaries to protect crucial family time.
Truly unplug after work, meaning no business calls or work emails when you get home. And if you want to see changes at the policy level, try getting involved with organizations like Paid Leave for the United States, a non-profit advocating for paid family leave for all.
Schedule Breaks Into Your Day
How about instituting your own fika at work, like Quartz reporter Lila MacLellan did? Grab some pastries, brew some coffee, and invite your team to chat with you for 10 minutes or so.
Use Your Paid Leave
Americans are notorious for having relatively few vacation days, and not even using the ones they do have! According to the U.S. Travel Association, more than half of Americans leave their vacation time untouched. So make the most of your paid leave—your brain will thank you for it.
Advocate For A Remote Work Or Flexible Schedule
More and more companies are opening up to the idea of remote work, or even flexible schedules. Even if you don’t have a telecommuting policy at your job, why not bring it up to your boss?
By taking the initiative to bring flexible schedules into your workplace, your team (and leadership) may start thanking you. In a Gensler U.S. workplace survey, the results found that “employees who are given a choice of when and where to work are higher performing, more satisfied, and see their companies as more innovative." Improved satisfaction and higher productivity sounds like a win-win, right?
Bring Hygge To The Workplace
Want to create a warm atmosphere in your office? To encourage bonding, design shared spaces where colleagues can gather and chat. Better yet, foster psychological safety by creating a welcoming environment where teammates feel free to speak up and take risks.
Change Your Mindset
None of the perks of being Scandinavian mean anything if you have the wrong attitude. Here’s what I mean: What good is five weeks of paid vacation if your workplace culture dissuades you from using it?
Does it matter if fathers are offered 480 days of paternity leave if society stigmatizes the men who take it?
The only reason “latte papas” get so much love in Sweden is that the culture embraces the idea that being a stay-at-home dad is a good thing. Thinking like a Scandinavian means considering what’s best for your team at large, not just what you would like for yourself.
Practice These Lessons From Your Nordic Neighbors
At first, I was intent on figuring out how to douse my own work life in the Scandi secret sauce that’s transforming this region of the world into a seeming work-life utopia. But as paradoxical as it seems, I realized that learning to be as happy and productive as the Scandinavians begins with being content with what I have, being modest about my achievements, and focusing on what will help my community as a whole.
Still, it must be nice to be on a winning streak. And Scandinavia, if you’re not going to boast about it, I will for you.
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