Five key ways Swedes achieve the work-life balance we are all looking for.
Sweden is well known for the lagom way of life: not too much, not too little, only the perfect balance. Lagom can be applied to anything, such as the amount of milk in your morning coffee, and it definitely can fit under the topic of work-life balance, too.
Curious to know more about lagom? Read my full post here.
I’ve lived in Sweden for almost four years now and the main question I get from Swedes, expats, and friends back home in the US is, “Why did you move to Sweden?”
While there are a few key reasons, one of them was for its famed work-life balance. And I have to say, it has lived up to the hype!
Note! Like with all of my posts on Sweden and Me, I am sharing my personal experiences, often backed up with research. For today’s post, it is important that you know that I work as a consultant. My white collar job allows me schedule flexibility, the ability to work remotely, a stable monthly salary, and “red days” (or public holidays) throughout the year, among other benefits. When I worked in retail back in the US, I often clocked in on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve and felt a disruption in my work-life balance despite the fact that this was normal / to be expected in my industry. Similarly, my point of view of work-life balance in Sweden is heavily colored by my American upbringing.
With that said, let’s dive in.
I’ve written a whole post on Sweden and Vacation, so check it out if you want to see how a Swede spends a typical semester. But what is important to mention here in relation to work-life balance is that everyone in Sweden has a minimum five weeks of vacation…and we are encouraged to take it. While actually taking your vacation might not sound like a radical concept to you, as an American, it unfortunately was to me. Back in the US, I was sometimes denied taking even four days off.
Here, my bosses encourage me and my colleagues to take time off. Some were even concerned when I said that I was not going to take multiple weeks off during the summer period, as is the Swedish way. I really appreciate being able – and encouraged – to disconnect from work.
Oh, and as a side note, when Swedes draft their OOO message during vacation, they typically say something like, “I am enjoying summer vacation with my family and will be back in four weeks. Please expect a response then.” Notice how there isn’t anything about “limited access to email”? Vacation means being off work, and Swedes take that to heart.
With my employer, we are given summer hours. From June 15 until September 15 we work from 8:00 – 16:00, rather than 17:00, without any reduction in our salary. So for three months of the year, I work 35 hours a week instead of 40. If I need to work until 17:00 or later, any overtime goes into my flex account, which I can use to take hours or days off later on. These overtime flex hours are recorded and used all year round, not only during the summer period.
I have to say, I have not heard of any other employer offering summer hours as mine does. So perhaps this is more of a benefit that my company offers rather than a Swedish standard. To any employers out there, take note!
Flex hours, however, do seem to be very popular among Swedish employers. At my job, I need to keep a minimum of 75 hours in my flex account before I can take any time off. This essentially means that I need to work two week’s worth of overtime before I can take a flex day, but as I am given summer hours at my work, I don’t really feel the need to complain.
One of my friends cannot have more than 10 hours in her flex account at any time. This means that any busy period at her job is immediately offset with some time off. If she works late on a Monday, she will leave early on that Friday.
Back in the US, getting your hair cut, going to the dentist or doctor, or even just running to the hardware store was something that needed to be done on weeknights, the weekend, or by taking time off from work. It just is not socially acceptable to leave work early to get a haircut in the US, unless you are going during your lunch hour.
But in Sweden, it is very common to see retailers and health businesses, like dentists, closed or working limited hours during the weekend, and to close at 18:00 or so during the weekdays. This does not leave many options for full-time employees to access these basic services…expect for during working hours. So many white collar employees in Sweden will take time off during the work day for any appointments necessary. This helps free up time during the weekends and weekday evenings for other activities, instead of running all your errands on a Sunday.
Whether it be from 8:00 – 16:00 or 8:00 – 17:00, you can typically count on a Swede clocking off on time. On the whole, Swedes value efficiency, so they get their tasks done quickly, without wasting extra time on it. Unlike in the US, staying late at the office isn’t a good thing. Instead, it may signal to your boss that you are falling behind on your work or have too much on your plate.
Swedes are also very involved parents and it is common to hear someone say that they cannot attend a morning meeting or need to leave early so they can drop-off or pick-up their child from school (using their bike, of course!).
It is also becoming more common to hear someone say that they have an exercise class at 17:30 and need to clock off to get there on time. In fact, many employers offer wellness hours. These are typically one or two hours a week, used at your discretion, for exercise classes, massages, physical therapy, and the like.
Swedish employers also provide a wellness allowance. This friskvårdsbidrag, often between 3,000 – 5,000 SEK (~$300-500 USD) annually, helps decrease burnout and relieves some of the financial burden that often comes with physical wellness, such as paying for gym memberships.
And really, work-life balance all comes down to boundaries. Despite the amazing benefits I’ve detailed above, I know plenty of Swedes who work crazy hours – especially common within the client services industry.
It is up to each individual to set working limits, dare to say “no”, and prioritize other aspects of their life over work. Luckily, these mentalities seem to be baked into the Swedish way and are foundational aspects of Swedish culture. This focus on wellness and healthy habits serves Swedes well and I think we could all take a page from their book!
- Everyone in Sweden is given five weeks of vacation, minimum. My employer personally gives me six.
- According Unionen, with the Annual Leave Act, “you are entitled to 25 full days of vacation every year regardless of your age or type of employment…Under the Annual Leave Act, you are entitled to a continuous vacation of four weeks (main vacation) during the period of June – August.” That is right – those of us living in Sweden legally can take four straight weeks of vacation every summer! In fact, our companies expect us to and some even mandate it, but shutting down operations completely. This is often called “industry vacation”.
- Swedes take more vacation than any other country in the world – 41 days annually!
- Try changing your OOO message to something that makes it clear that you will be enjoying vacation and are not checking your email in the meantime.
- Experiment with setting boundaries in your own work life. Start small by end meetings on time, for example, and gradually become more daring with your boundaries if this feels daunting.
Hope you learned some new Swedishness today and I’ll see you in the next post!