What Sweden's lagom teaches us about work-life balance
Jun 23, 2021
What if we could work not too much, not too little, but just enough? And what if that meant becoming more productive, but also happier versions of ourselves?
Sweden has a term for this: Lagom. Pronounced lah-gohm, it means “not too much, not too little”, “just enough” or “good enough”, depending on the context. At its core, lagom favors moderation over excess. A Swedish proverb claims lagom är bäst - “just enough is the best” or, idiomatically, “enough is as good as a feast.”
International media have picked up on lagom, suggesting it might be the key to living a balanced life. At the office, this translates into striking a rare work-life balance that some tout as the secret ingredient to Swedish business success stories. Sweden also has one of the highest employment rates in Europe, both for the general population and for women.
Lagom is by no means the first Scandinavian buzzword that has caused enthusiasm abroad (the Danish hygge was the big hype a few years ago). And although lagom flourishes in everyday spoken Swedish, does it mean the same to the Swedes as to outsiders fascinated by what appears to be Scandinavian bliss? To understand lagom and what it really looks like in Swedish workplaces, we spoke to Lotta Dellve, a professor at the Gothenburg University in southwest Sweden. Dellve has studied Swedish working conditions since the 1990s and has produced prize-winning research on how businesses can create sustainable environments where employees thrive.
Before we dig into your labor research, we need a little language lesson. What is lagom?
I would say it means “good enough”. In everyday speech, we use lagom to express that we believe something is just right. At work, this means performing well enough according to a balance between my resources and what my job needs from me.
I learned that lagom comes from the old Swedish word laghum, which loosely translates as “according to law”, or “according to custom”. More recently it took its current meaning, of “good enough”, as you say, or “just the right amount”. But the urban myth is that the term originated when the Vikings passed around a bowl with food or a drink om (around) the group. It was important not to take too much or too little, but lagom - just enough. Is this a fitting image when thinking about what the concept of lagom means in a Swedish workplace?
Yes, finding lagom at work is something that has to be done also in relation to the group’s needs and resources. We expect that everyone takes on their roles, and supports each other in the best way they can. At work, you are in a group setting with your colleagues. If you constantly use up all the resources and take all the credit - If you take too big a sip of the drink - that’s not good for the group or for yourself in the long run.
Does the concept of lagom translate into a better work-life balance for individuals, or is that too simplistic?
A central aspect of lagom refers to having a work-life balance. This means to put lagom efforts into work, to have time to recover after. Each individual has to learn what their level of lagom at their job is, which means balancing out flexibility and structure. Or, keeping a balance between having an openness for learning and setting boundaries for one’s efforts at work. I have to strike the balance between flexibility - engaging, enthusiasm, learning, and creativity - on the one hand, and stability by keeping the focus on the structured and formalized assigned role for the job on the other hand.
Having a team around you is helpful to achieve such balance. Colleagues might tell me, “Lotta, now you have done enough, right?” And I can respond, “Yes, I think it is lagom” (good enough, editor’s note). We know that employees who work alone lack the possibility to learn from others to find this balance. They are more at risk, especially if they are young or in a precarious situation because it means saying yes and yes and yes, all the time and to everything. It is important that we don’t let market logic dominate here. It is important to take responsibility for everyone and try to find what is lagom for the collective group.
To outsiders looking at Sweden, it seems like lagom means less time in the office and more time to do other things, like spending time with family, friends or engaging in hobbies.
Yes and no. First, we work a lot in Sweden and we don’t only have success stories of lagom work. If we look at Eurofond surveys comparing Sweden with other countries, we see that the intensity of work is among the highest, with long working hours and little rest in between. So we do have problems with working too much. The mental stress at work is also high, especially among young workers and in the public sector. So there have been a lot of organizational efforts to prevent stress, build supportive preconditions and interventions to find a balance between work and private life, to sustain the intense work life.
But generally people go home around 5pm right?
Yes. We have an eight-hour work day and rules and regulations that support not working too much. We have tried out a six-hour day in different projects, which showed positive results and would have been a good idea to put into practice. We also have norms against sending emails on weekends and not disturbing other colleagues after 5 pm.
It’s not like Sweden is a country without business success stories. You have Spotify, Ikea, and Volvo, to mention some of the most famous examples. How does lagom impact business performance?
If you find your level of lagom, you will be able to get good nights of sleep, spend time with your family or friends, and exercise. If you get to rest every day, spend time with the family, and exercise, you will be able to work better and for more years. That’s good for you, but also your business and for the young employees that can learn from your experience. You will have a better working life. If you don’t, there is an increased risk of getting sick or disengaged in your job.
Another point of success is that lagom encourages continuous learning. Employees can be more creative, which will make them more satisfied. This is really important. The more learning - individual and collective - there is in a business, the better for the business.
I read that in a lagom workplace the manager’s role is more like a football coach than a boss, is that true?
Yes, absolutely. This type of leadership focuses on creating development in the group. You have a collective goal: kicking the football.
This is in contrast with a manager telling the employees what to do. We already tried this kind of management in Sweden for a period of around 15 years. We saw an increased level of sick leave and less engagement among employees, which is why we now try to switch back to a more collaborative leadership style based on building trust in the workplace. As a result, we have seen an increased level of work engagement among employees, but also clients, as the decisions are taken at a grassroots level.
We also learned that this is a more efficient approach, because managers aren’t the most skilled at the job in a business - the employees are. By redirecting more responsibility to the employees, things take less time and may become more relevant for customers.
But despite all this, lagom isn’t a stated goal in Sweden, neither for businesses nor for politicians, who use other terms when measuring success. Why is that?
Lagom is the spoken word, but in research, we talk about terms like sustainable development. I think sustainability (hållbarhet in Swedish, editor’s note) is better when thinking about the collective as a whole.
As a manager, you can say to an individual: “I think we have performed lagom.” But you would not boast that “We are the company that has done the most lagom in the world.” It isn’t so winning. Lagom isn’t about being the best, it is about being good enough and sustainable in the long run.
I wouldn’t sell something with the word lagom, but I would trust a manager who talks about lagom.
Depending on the context, lagom can mean “just the right amount”, but also “not very”. If a party is lagom kul, it is “not very fun”. Some criticize lagom, saying it kills creativity and fails to push employees to perform. Employees can become disengaged and unhappy because they know there are no opportunities to shoot for the stars.
I think that’s right. You can use the word lagom as an excuse for not doing your best. It can also be an idea in a group that legitimizes that we’ve done lagom, so those interested in doing even better might be hindered in doing so.
Is this tied to Janteloven, that prominent cultural norm of self-restraint that exists in Scandinavian countries, perhaps, especially in Sweden and Norway? It preaches that you must never believe that you are better than anyone else.
Definitely. This idea that no one is better than anyone else in Janteloven can be linked to the negative side of lagom. But I’m not sure that Janteloven is that apparent anymore in Sweden. I think lagom is about balance and sustainability. Most Swedish people are very engaged, and we need lagom to find the right balance at work.
Sweden is changing. Are Swedes still as faithful to a ‘lagom’ way of life as they used to be?
Sweden might not be lagom for all. This is something we are concerned about. Some groups lack the possibility of having a lagom amount of work. This is why we, in academia, are so concerned about gender equality, migrants, and people in precarious work situations and do our best to identify problems and study supportive interventions. There are a lot of reports identifying the health consequences of precarious employment. There is also quite high awareness of the challenges, and regulations to prevent the misuse of workers. Still, the old tension between market logic, social security, and human rights are apparent also in Sweden.
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