Danes show the value of short working days and long holidays

Denmark is home to some of the world’s happiest and most productive workers. Is it a coincidence, then, that they also work some of the shortest and most flexible hours in Europe?

 
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Danish workers are happier and more productive than their overworked UK and US counterparts

Author: Emily Cashen

20 Jul 2017

“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, [and] that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous”, said Bertrand Russell in his celebrated 1935 essay In Praise of Idleness. In the years since the essay’s publication, the standard nine-to-five working day has become a thing of the past, with many people routinely working well in excess of 40 hours per week, often without adequate breaks or overtime pay. If Russell believed excessive work to be harmful, then recent scientific studies have proved his decades-old assertion to be true.

According to the Mayo Clinic, workers who spend four or more hours sitting at a desk each day have a 125 percent increase in heart disease risk, as well as a 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause. What’s more, researchers at University College London have discovered long work hours can more than double the risk of developing depression. From work-related stress to unhealthy diets, long hours in the office are making us physically and mentally unwell.

Despite this damning evidence, many OECD countries have experienced a cultural shift towards longer working days in recent years, with all-nighters and 24/7 availability accepted as a part of working life in Europe’s competitive financial hubs. And yet, while some nations appear intent on pushing their workers to the limit, others are moving in a different direction. According to the OECD’s Better Life report, Denmark has the world’s best work-life balance, with just two percent of employees regularly working very long hours. With the Scandinavian nation also boasting the happiest workforce in the world, we might have a thing or two to learn from the Danish model.

Toxic culture
In 2013, a 21-year-old Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern collapsed and died in his London accommodation after working for 72 hours in a row. The young intern’s death sent shockwaves around the City, prompting the district’s biggest financial players to examine the cutthroat corporate culture that saw all-nighters as a rite of passage for young workers. In response to the sad incident, Goldman Sachs announced it would be capping its interns’ workdays so as to avoid overwork – benevolently setting a limit of 17 hours per day. For many, this announcement proved just how warped and out of touch work culture in the City had become, and little has been done to improve the situation in the years since.

As Millennials begin to make up a larger portion of the workforce, we are starting to see a cultural shift away from the standard working day

London’s financial district may be an extreme example of work-life imbalance, but a culture of long hours is pervasive throughout the UK. A third of UK workers do not take their full holiday entitlement, and 13 percent of employees are said to regularly work very long hours. A wave of presenteeism and office martyrdom has swept the nation, with employees regarding late nights at their desk as a masochistic badge of honour. However, while UK workers forgo their lunch hours and work late into the night, Danish employees are more likely to be found at home, enjoying dinner with their families.

“There isn’t the same culture of presenteeism in Denmark, and that’s really vital”, said Helen Russell, author of bestselling book The Year of Living Danishly. “People often work from 8am until 4pm, and you’re unlikely to be at your desk past 5pm. You don’t get a pat on the back for still being there at 7pm – in fact, you’re more likely to get a lecture on inefficiency and time management.”

Simply put, Danish employers trust workers to do their jobs and do them well. They understand the quality of an employee’s output is of far more importance than the time spent on a job, and that longer office hours don’t necessarily mean more work gets done. Without a culture of presenteeism, Danes need not feel guilty about clocking off at 4pm, as it is understood their colleagues will all be doing the same. Of course, leaving the office at a reasonable hour means Danes have more time to indulge in leisurely pursuits, and are free to spend around two-thirds of their day cultivating a life outside of work.

“Geographically speaking, the UK is in the middle between Scandinavia and the US, and I think that culturally it is too”, said Russell. “We’ve got so much of that US influence in terms of our work culture, and some of that takes the form of these long hours.”

Less posturing, more output
With the workday ending early at 4pm, it might be tempting to think Danes get less done than the average European. In fact, the very opposite is true. According to researchers at the OECD, worker productivity actually improves with shorter working days, while output takes a sharp nosedive when employees clock up workweeks in excess of 48 hours.

The OECD’s data from 2016 shows that, of the 10 countries with the highest GDP, seven (Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands) also feature on the top 10 list for the shortest working hours. As these flourishing countries suggest, shorter workweeks might be the key to prosperity.

Unlike its mainland neighbours, however, the UK is suffering something of a productivity crisis, with the OECD ranking it as the 25th hardest working nation out of a possible 38 countries. Bizarrely, a cult of overwork persists in the UK despite this resounding proof that long hours diminish productivity and quality of output. Simply showing up to the office and staying put at a desk for nine hours does not guarantee results, and workers are likely to feel less engaged with their roles due to a poor state of general wellbeing. Last year, a YouGov survey revealed over half of UK workers believe a working day of seven hours or less would be most productive, and 44 percent would support a workweek shorter than five days.

Simply put, Danish employers trust workers to do their jobs and do them well

With the average Brit clocking up far more than seven hours of work per day, it is easy to see how employees begin to resent their jobs for keeping them in the office past 5pm. Rather than staying focused on the task in hand, workers may even feel entitled to procrastinate, scrolling through social media at their desks in what they might see as a well-earned break. Without the added time pressure of a shorter working day, workers may also delay getting started on a task, as they feel reassured that they have plenty time to complete it. In Denmark however, being at work means you are actually working.

“It’s just a given that you’re not checking Facebook during the day at work – you’re working the hours that you’re there and then you go home”, Russell said. “In the UK, there’s a lot of just showing up and being the office martyr, and that’s just not done here.”

Danish workers may also enjoy a productivity boost through the clear division of professional and personal life. Today, technology means we’re available 24/7, with no boundaries and no breaks. For many, leaving the office does not mean leaving work, as a steady stream of emails continues to pour through on smartphones and laptops. While UK office workers might be tempted to finish off a project at home, other European countries are taking a stance against the intrusion of work in the private sphere. France recently passed a law banning companies from emailing their workers outside office hours, and Germany already has similar out-of-hours guidelines in place. In family-focused Denmark, such laws simply do not need to exist, as the damaging ‘forever on’ culture has never taken hold.

Joy boost
It’s not just shorter working hours that have a positive impact on productivity. Researchers from the University of Warwick have discovered happiness makes people around 12 percent more productive at work, suggesting there is a real economic benefit to prioritising employee support and satisfaction.

And, if economies around the world want to boost worker morale, they need look no further than the example set by Denmark. For the Scandinavian nation, the key to a happy and productive workforce is prioritising life over work. In addition to enjoying shorter working days and greater work-life balance, Danes also benefit from a flexible working culture that supports their wellbeing both inside and outside the office. For example, workers can often choose when they start their day, and many have the option of working from home when it suits them. What’s more, lunch breaks are often at a designated time each day, encouraging colleagues to leave their desks and eat together, supporting socialisation and friendships between workmates.

When it comes to holidays, all workers are entitled to a minimum of five weeks of paid time off, as well as numerous public holidays. Interestingly, most workers take the majority of their holiday entitlement in one long block over the summer, meaning offices tend to shut up shop for a month at that time of year. “In July, the whole country shuts down”, Russell explained. “Everyone takes their summer holiday en masse, and things just stop because it’s understood that that’s the custom.”

This phenomenon is described as ‘collective restoration’ by Swedish researchers, and is common in several European nations, including France and Italy. According to health researchers at Sweden’s Uppsala University, this period of collective restoration essentially makes entire countries happier, with antidepressant usage falling at an increased rate when workers holiday at the same time. The link between collective time off and happiness is not hard to find, as it is simply easier to nurture and strengthen relationships with family and friends when everyone is available at the same time. Furthermore, workers are free to fully relax, safe in the knowledge work isn’t piling up on their desks and their inboxes aren’t filling rapidly.

“When workers return from this break, everyone is in a better state of mind”, said Russell. “You are able to properly relax when you’re away, because you know that nobody else is working.” As a family-orientated nation, Denmark is also committed to ensuring quality family time for new parents. Danes are entitled to a generous 52 weeks of shared parental leave, with new mothers and fathers choosing to split the time as they see fit. To help new parents get back to work, the Danish Government also pays 75 percent of the costs of childcare from six months onwards, and covers the cost entirely for low-income families. Kindergarten hours are often organised around office hours, and all Danish children are guaranteed a childcare place from the age of 26 weeks to when they start school. Given all these generous options, it’s perhaps unsurprising an incredible 86 percent of Danish women return to work after having a baby.

“There’s much more balance between the sexes here in Denmark”, said Russell. “It’s perfectly accepted that both men and women will leave work to pick up the kids from daycare and start making dinner. Over 80 percent of women work, and kids seem to be thriving on it.”

Denmark has been voted as having the happiest workforce in Europe, and this can largely be attributed to the country’s flexible work culture. Employers not only care about their workers’ wellbeing and happiness while they are at work, but they also recognise the important of a life outside of the office, encouraging employees to make personal time a priority.

Millennials go Danish
As Millennials begin to make up a larger portion of the workforce, we are starting to see a cultural shift away from the standard working day. A slow climb up the ranks of a company might once have been a worker’s projected career path, but employees now demand greater flexibility in their work, with freelancing and self-employment on the rise.

According to Statista, work-life balance is now the second most important factor when choosing a job, coming second only to salary and financial incentives. Among Millennials, work-life balance is considered particularly crucial, with a recent Millennial Branding report showing that 45 percent of Millennial respondents would choose workplace flexibility over pay. Along with desiring greater flexibility in their work, Millennials are also demanding a level of personal fulfilment from their jobs, and are more likely to leave a company quickly if they believe it simply isn’t a ‘good fit’.

Denmark has been voted as having the happiest workforce in Europe, and this can largely be attributed to the country’s flexible work culture

For this generation, the Great Recession has had a lasting effect on Millennials’ economic prospects, with many entering the job market in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. As such, many have become accustomed to economic disruption and uncertainty, and are therefore more likely to take risks in their careers.

“[After] the financial crisis, there is less job security and fewer financial guarantees for young people”, said Russell. “Unemployment is common and it’s increasingly difficult to get into the housing market, so Millennials are less inclined to show loyalty to their companies, and less likely to decide that their work should be prioritised over their life.”

Millennials have been accused of being the ‘me, me, me’ generation, but their demands for flexibility and fulfilment in their jobs should be respected. Indeed, given the positive impact shorter workdays and worker happiness can have on productivity, it might be high time to embrace these Millennial expectations. With an emphasis on work-life balance and personal fulfilment, Millennials are taking inspiration from the Danish model and creating a new attitude. After all, it’s clear the Danish model works, and works well. It acts as something of a virtuous circle: workers are happier because they work less, and get to spend more time cultivating a life outside of the office; in turn, they are more productive because they are happier; finally, they can afford to work less, because they are more productive when they are working.

While UK employees are overworked and unhappy, Denmark’s flexible culture has created a uniquely productive and fulfilled workforce. If employees can embrace the Millennial vision of a changing workplace, then we may begin to see the successful Danish model replicated worldwide.

“We attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness”, Bertrand Russell bemoaned in his essay. Perhaps he might revise this statement if he could only meet the famously happy 21st century Danes.