American work culture is known around the globe for its intense, competitive, and cut-throat nature. And this isn’t just a stereotype. According to G.E. Miller of 20somethingfinance, the U.S. is the most overworked of all developed nations. And it only takes a few minutes on Google search to find countless other sources backing this claim.
The plight of the overworked American is familiar to many of us. Whether we’re working seriously long hours or can’t seem to get a day off to go to the doctor, American work-life balance is statistically pretty bad compared to other developed countries. And our mindsets have even been shaped to see this as normal – while other countries look on in horror.
In a 2019 article published in The Atlantic, journalist Derek Thompson writes about how although he’s passionate about his work, he recognizes this extreme devotion can be a deficiency often working against his productivity. In reality, this is a mindset so many Americans share.
If you have any Scandinavian friends, you’re probably already well-aware of how differently they approach their jobs. And if you’re not familiar with Scandinavia’s work-culture, you’re in for one heck of a surprise.
A few years ago I met a young Norwegian couple while traveling. They had both been at home for 2 months because they just had a baby. And no, they didn’t lose their jobs. This was paid parental leave for both parents, and their jobs were basically guaranteed once their leave was over. At the time, I couldn’t believe that they were even telling the truth.
While many hardworking Americans may scoff at what sounds to them like a lack of work ethic, the studies don’t lie: Scandinavia is consistently ranked as one of the happiest regions in the world – and their productivity doesn’t lag far behind.
So what exactly are the differences between Scandinavia’s work culture and America’s?
Vacations are the Norm
Many Americans just don’t use (or don’t have available) vacation days. On the other hand, Scandinavians are known to take vacations pretty seriously.
Danish business consultant, Kay Xander Mellish, told CNBC that Danes rarely allow any vacation time to go unused. While CEO Bjorn Jefferey explained to Business Insider that all Swedes take vacations; it’s just a collective activity.
Jefferey claims that this is the biggest difference between American work culture and Swedish work culture. Swedes tend to emphasize that regularly taking vacations results in drastically improved productivity and efficiency.
When the Workday is Over, it’s Over
American work culture tends to encourage employees to spend as much time as possible at the office, often through offering a variety of perks like providing workers free breakfast or dinner if they come in early or work overtime.
Bjorn Jefferey states that it’s integral workers get home and really take a break from the workday and workplace. Similarly, in an article describing Swedish work culture, Matthias Kamann explains that overtime work is a rare occurrence in Sweden.
Scandinavians get that a healthy work-life balance relies on healthy work-life boundaries.
It’s Much Easier to be a Working Parent in Scandinavia
Most of us know at least one person who’s struggled with this dilemma: sacrifice a great career to focus on parenting your child, or try and juggle both?
In Scandinavia, this isn’t really something workers need to worry much about. According to the New Republic, Swedes are allowed up to 16 months of paid leave after giving birth, in addition to being provided with extra tax credits and access to subsidized day care facilities open 12 hours a day.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Short Breaks are Encouraged
Just as vacation time is respected, so too are short office breaks like coffee or lunch. And these tiny, bite-size vacations are taken just as seriously as their longer counterparts.
While Americans often skip lunch breaks altogether to get more work done, Swedes are unlikely to forgo an opportunity to recharge. Instead, they make the most of their breaks, catching up with co-workers and enjoying a great meal without feeling rushed to get back to work.
Equality is a Big Deal
Work equality is a major part of work culture in every Scandinavian country. As Naomi Trickey of HRZone and Victoria Greene of Zenruption point out, equality and trust are simply a part of Scandinavia’s work culture. Everyone is treated equally and everyone works together, period.
Working in Scandinavia focuses on teambuilding and creating a sense of unity in the workplace that workers really appreciate.
So What Can American Businesses (and Others) Learn from All This?
Encourage Vacation Days
One impactful way to incorporate more of a Scandinavian style work culture is to encourage employees to use their hard-earned vacation days, rather than discourage it. Businesses should want employees to be working and functioning at their best. And taking vacations allow employees to recover – which then greatly improves their productivity upon return.
Help Create Relaxing Breaks
Coffee breaks and lunchtime should be approached in a similar way. Help employees make the most of a mid-morning coffee break by creating a warm, inviting atmosphere in the break room where they can unwind.
This may mean softer lighting (like the Danish hygge) or supplying an assortment of tea and delicious pastries (like the Swedish Fika).
Respect Official Workday Hours
Employees should not be encouraged to linger far past working hours or get into the office early. There needs to be an understanding that everyone needs to breath, recharge, and tend to many other areas of their life that require attention.
While working overtime may sometimes be inevitable, companies should do their best to avoid developing a culture that emphasizes overtime work.
Establish Affordable Daycare Options
If possible, businesses would be wise to establish affordable day-care options for employees, and also be more accommodating to parents of newborns.
Employees are people. And many people have kids. Companies can work with parents to adjust their work schedules to work for them, whether that means working partially from home or rearranging hours.
Create an Equal Environment
Workplaces that focus on equality and appreciation for every employee tend to be more productive and have much happier personnel, regardless of their company position.
As Ulrik Bo Larsen writes in Fast Company, loyalty must not go unnoticed or uncelebrated. Businesses must be ready to reward all dedicated employees for their efforts. Without the employees, there would be no business.
Many companies in Scandinavia are also moving towards a “flat management” structure. This lessens differences in seniority and instead fosters a greater sense of togetherness within the workplace.
Scandinavia’s Work Culture Produces Happier, More Productive Employees
Although not every aspect of Scandinavian work culture will serve all non-Scandinavian (or even Scandinavian) businesses, there is certainly much to be learned from their approach to productivity, efficiency, and happiness in the work place.
And when combined with the famous American work ethic, this can only generate a recipe for serious success.