Mastering the art of workplace wellbeing: 5 lessons from Denmark

Mastering the art of workplace wellbeing: 5 lessons from Denmark
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For many years now, Denmark has been at the top of a number of international rankings, such as the World Happiness Report. It also has some of the most productive employees. Denmark’s reputation for happiness has remained relatively intact during the pandemic, there have been fewer job losses and its GDP has been less affected than the GDP of other countries in the European Union. In the run-up to 2021, its people and businesses were in better shape than those elsewhere in Europe despite the health crisis.

Remote working was common in the country long before the pandemic began as many aspects of Danish work culture helped to make it a viable option. Here are a few of the things that Danish workplaces are known for: autonomy in your job, gender equality, paternal involvement in childcare, a superb work-life balance, less focus on hierarchy and status, and a higher level of trust (including with managers).

In many respects, Denmark is a world leader when it comes to workplace wellbeing and the prevention of psychosocial risks in areas such as anxiety or loneliness. This is why business activity and the work-life balance of its citizens have been affected less than elsewhere. Seeing as the Danes are pioneers of good workplace practices, we can see Denmark as a rich source of inspiration for organisations everywhere. Here are five lessons to get you started.

1. Work-life balance is sacred

Having shorter working days is the main reason why Danes are at the top of rankings of the world’s most productive people. Their days end at 4 PM—and that goes for executives too. And while there may be a few exceptions, employees don’t start at 7 AM generally but at 9 AM. As it gets dark early in Denmark, you need to have time to enjoy the sun.

At any rate, you won’t see Danes clocking in. Employees control their own schedules. And when it comes to peer pressure at the office, those who linger past 4 PM are seen as inefficient and disorganised. Denmark’s workplace culture is not based on presenteeism: whether you’re working at the office or from home, Danes are not micromanaged by superiors and doing overtime is frowned upon.

In fact, having a good work-life balance is so important that managers strive to lead by example and to spot employee burn-out. Many managers leave the office early to work out or to play sports. Another common practice among managers is to meet regularly with employees to ensure their wellbeing, asking questions such as, “Haven’t you been working a bit too hard these days?” or “Is everything okay?”

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2. To stay sane at work, you have to be realistic

For some years now, people have been praising the Danish concept of hygge: the Nordic way of life that allows you to stay positive during the long winter months by cosying up in thick blankets, wearing woollen socks and lighting decorative candles. Such creature comforts have become even more essential during the long Covid-19 winter when home is the only refuge for most people. But these details are only superficial— hygge has many other facets, especially at work.

The word hygge comes from “hyggja”, a word that meant “to think” in the Middle Ages. Hygge took on its current meaning during the 19th century when the Danish kingdom lost most of its territory to Sweden, Austria and Prussia. From that moment on, “the Danes began to identify with simplicity,” said Louisa Thomsen Brits in The Book of Hygge. This quality is reflected in the word hygge to this day.

The modern definition of hygge thus became the ability to gain satisfaction with less, take what life gives you—and be realistic. Meik Wiking, the director of the Institute for Happiness Research in Copenhagen, said that hygge is a “survival strategy”. In terms of work, this means two things:

  • A corporate culture that promotes individual emotional security. As Wiking said, this approach gives you “the sense of being safe, safe from the world, and that you can let your guard down”. In other words, people are encouraged to be themselves. As a result, workplace culture becomes inclusive, giving everyone the opportunity to be their absolute best.
  • Set realistic goals. Sky-high goals may indicate strong ambition, but they are not conducive to employee wellbeing. The higher your goals, the less chance you have of achieving them—and the more likely you are to feel bad about yourself. When you look at the formula—happiness = reality – expectations—it’s obvious that lowering your expectations helps to increase your happiness. And that’s not exactly rocket science.

3. Employees are encouraged to embrace their inner artisan

Craftsmanship is not just the preserve of artisans or those who work with their hands, but is also a philosophy of work based on a set of values such as autonomy, responsibility, know-how, mentorship and creativity. These values are particularly important to the way Danes work. For example, the concept of “self-management” is becoming increasingly popular around the world. This approach to the workplace is non-hierarchical and it encourages the collective entrepreneurship of individuals.

What’s more, the importance placed on trust—at school and in the office—in Danish culture means that employees are given a great deal of autonomy. That’s another reason why results, as long as they are realistic, are more important than the hours you work (see lesson #1). In short, whether you are an employee or not, you are free to choose whatever means you like to achieve the goals you’ve set yourself. Now that’s true craftsmanship.

Moreover, Danish organisations are generally more egalitarian than hierarchical, as Erin Meyer explains in The Culture Map. Here’s what we wrote about her book about her book last year:

“In egalitarian cultures, such as Denmark, Sweden or the Netherlands, ‘the ideal distance between a boss and a subordinate is low’. Bosses are facilitators among equals. Corporate structures are quite flat and communication can skip regular hierarchical lines. ‘The belief that individuals should be equal and that individual achievement should be downplayed has been a part of Scandinavian society for centuries’.”

Remote working is much easier when the workplace culture provides greater equality and the management structure is flat. Managers don’t feel like they are losing status and benefits, as is often the case in more hierarchical workplace cultures. Therefore, remote working and wellbeing are concepts that go hand-in-hand.

4. No matter where you work, ergonomics is the key to productivity

The quality of a working environment is sometimes judged by the trendy colour of the walls or how many games tables there are. This is obviously far too simplistic: without autonomy and trust, employees feel alienated and unhappy in even the most beautiful offices. Even the most expensive ergonomic chair on the market won’t make your work more meaningful.

At the same time, the working environment and ergonomics should not be overlooked. This is where the Danes are truly the leaders. Their offices are often equipped with beautifully-designed ergonomic furniture, where “form follows function”. Height-adjustable tables are common, so employees can move around more. And they’ve been practising the art of “active” meetings, where attendees stand or walk about, for some time now.

Thanks to their focus on flexibility and autonomy, remote working was already widespread before the pandemic. That’s why Danish employees are generally better prepared to work at home than the average European. This is especially true given that hygge plays a key role in how the Danes furnish their homes. And Danish companies will cover a portion of the cost that an employee may need to set up a great home office.

Employees also have flexibility when it comes to where they work: office, home, coworking space or café. This is facilitated by the Danish transport infrastructure, which is among the best in the world, with its cycle paths, pleasant underground and excellent roads. Finally, Denmark is known for being very advanced when it comes to the digital realm, giving its workforce even greater flexibility.

5. Workplace wellbeing depends on gender equality!

The pandemic has made it clear that countries with the highest gender inequality have been hit the hardest. These are also the same countries where working from home has been less successful. That’s only logical: when you do the lion’s share of household chores, or you don’t have a “Room of One’s Own” and you must work on the kitchen table in between preparing the family meals and helping the kids do their homework, teleworking is near impossible.

While gender equality in Denmark is far from perfect, it has a reputation for being one of the most equal in the world. As Malene Rydahl, author of Happy as a Dane, explains: “Gender equality is important because men and women basically in Denmark have reached a point where we have a high level of equality… One of the reasons why it’s so successful in Denmark and not in the Scandinavian countries in general is that we’ve also liberated the men.”

What is considered a “feminist issue” in many countries, such as paternity leave, is considered “normal” in Denmark. And although relatively few Danes declare themselves feminists, the Danish approach to gender equality is not unlike their approach to workplace wellbeing—actions speak louder than words.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

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