By Victoria Greene
The differences between the work culture of the US compared to Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark couldn’t be more clear. In 2018, the American Dream looks more than a little worse for wear: low wages, no retirement savings, and a government working to undermine what little benefits remain at every turn.
Meanwhile, in Scandinavian countries, policies that actively seek to improve working conditions for its people are proving that shorter working hours, employee subsidies, and flat management make for a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce. Here’s what makes a Scandinavian work culture so successful, and why other countries ought to follow suit:
The concept of Jantelov
Jantelov was a term coined by the author Aksel Sandemose, and it embraces the idea that each of us is equal; that we shouldn’t consider ourselves above anyone else in our workplace or community. Scandinavian workplaces are known for having a real sense of equality and trust between their employees – it wouldn’t be unusual, for example, to see a senior manager pitching in with the tea round.
In a US system there’s often a focus on trust being something you earn, whereas with the Scandinavian model, employees are implicitly trusted from the outset, leading to a more pleasant and open working environment with fewer conflicts.
Shorter, more flexible working hours
Average working hours in Sweden are 36 hours a week, compared to 38 hours here in the US, which might not seem like a huge difference, until you realize that Swedes work around 143 fewer hours than US workers every year. On top of that, Swedes earn an average of $38,000 per year, compared to $31,000 in the States. They’re working fewer hours, for more money.
There are other differences too. Where working overtime might be seen as hardworking or conscientious in the US, in Sweden everyone heads home promptly at 5pm. Overtime isn’t valued – in fact, it can be taken as a sign of poor time management.
Employees’ working hours are also flexible – an option that helps people balance their lives around their jobs, for instance, being able to leave early to pick up the kids from school.
Celebration and recognition
Many Scandinavian businesses operate under a flat management structure. This means that every time there’s cause for celebration within the company, everybody gets involved. This inclusivity helps employees to feel valued and connected, which in turn fosters loyalty and happiness in the workplace. When employees are recognized and appreciated for their good work, they’re more likely to respond to this positive reinforcement by continuing to work hard and do their best.
Ever got to around 10 or 11 in the morning and found yourself in need of a break? In Sweden, this time of day is fika time – a mid-morning break where everyone stops work to enjoy a hot drink (usually a coffee), a snack (usually a pastry), and a chance to socialize with their coworkers.
Fika is considered an important social institution in Sweden, and it’s slowly beginning to spread to other businesses around the world. Again, thanks to Jantelov, fika is open to everyone, meaning upper management will often get involved as well.
One of the biggest challenges of becoming a parent in countries like the US and UK are the overwhelmingly high costs of daycare. Meanwhile in Scandinavia, daycare is heavily subsidized according to your personal income, with low-income families paying almost nothing, and high-income families paying slightly more (but far less than you would expect to pay in the States).
What are the benefits of affordable daycare? The foremost benefit is that both parents can easily choose to return to work if they want to, with less inequality between genders or parents having to sacrifice their careers. Swedish daycare is also among the best in the world, with frequent trips to beaches, forests, and museums.
Free health and dental care
Another popular workplace perk seen throughout Scandinavia is that alongside traditional health and dental provision, many companies also offer free (or heavily subsidized) complementary health treatments, such as massages and anti-smoking programs. While this may cost businesses more in the short-term, over the long-term it not only improves health and wellbeing, but also reduces absenteeism, so the costs are inevitably recouped over time.
The average private sector US worker receives 16 paid vacation days per year – just over two weeks. By contrast, the minimum vacation per year in Sweden is five weeks. They also take time off during the Christmas and Easter holidays.
Swedish companies also actively encourage their employees to take the full five weeks of holiday, seeing it as an opportunity for them to recharge, experience new things, and simply take time for themselves, meaning they’re fresh and full of energy when they return.
Support for personal pursuits
Scandinavian culture openly encourages people to be themselves at work, taking an active interest in hobbies and pursuits outside of the office. The traditionally flat management structure allows people to try new things and learn from their mistakes, without a heavy-handed boss breathing down their neck.
Studies show that the more autonomy people have in the workplace, the happier they are – employees have the power to lead projects, make decisions, and manage own their time. Having budget set aside for sending people to training, conferences and events is not uncommon.
Free fruit and subsidized meals
Both are common workplace perks in countries like Sweden, regardless of the size of the company. Whether it’s free fruit baskets or low-cost lunches down in the canteen, ensuring that employees get a rich and adequate diet is an investment in their future health and happiness at the company. These kinds of perks are now beginning to spread more globally – Canadian ecommerce company Shopify offers catered lunches daily, as does the American online clothing store Zappos.
Starting a new business
When it comes to providing the right environment for new businesses to flourish, Scandinavian and Nordic countries have always topped the ranks – and they have no shortage of successful entrepreneurs, businesses, and brands to prove it.
One of the main reasons for this is that it’s less risky to start a business, since social support measures like health and education are all provided for. Therefore, the burden on businesses to provide these services for employees is reduced – meaning they’re able to provide the additional perks (see all of the above) that keep employees happy and satisfied at work.
In the last few years, we’re starting to see much more awareness of the value of happiness and wellbeing at work. It should come as no surprise that most Scandinavian countries have seen work absenteeism drop year-on-year since 2000, when over in the US, workers are taking an average of 14 sick days annually. It’s clear that we have much to learn from our Scandinavian neighbors – and that perhaps it’s time to start looking at the office through employee eyes.
Victoria Greene loves sharing digital knowledge online. A recent entrepreneur herself, she is a big supporter of small businesses out there hustling hard and making a difference. Ecommerce specialist & digital nomad.