Why Denmark has the best work-life balance in the world and how our expat columnist attempted to get in on the act
article by Helen Russell for telegraph.co.uk
“It’s me. I’m still at the office,” the voice on the end of the line sighs: “I’ll be another hour. Don’t wait for me to eat.” My husband apologises, sounding forlorn, before hanging up as I glance at the clock.
It reads 5pm.
This is ‘pulling an all-nighter’, Danish-style.
With a working day typically ending at 4pm and overtime frowned on as an indicator of inefficiency, Denmark has the best work-life balance in the world. Rush hour starts at 3pm and by five-ish, most families around my way are thinking about supper.
This came as a shock when we moved here from London for my husband’s job in 2013. Working from home as a freelance journalist, I’d just about had time to answer a few emails, sample some Danish pastries (in the name of ‘cultural integration’) and brush the crumbs off my jumper when my other half came crashing through the door. I took this to be a first day exception, easing the new boy in gently. But then the same thing happened the next day. And the one after that. And when Friday rolled around, he was back at 2.30pm.
I was still in my pyjamas, hair unbrushed, coffee mugs scattered about my desk, speaking, ironically, to a time management expert in Boston. I had justified my slovenliness by telling myself that it was still morning in America. Then my husband sauntered in.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded. Was he sick? Had he lost his job? Had there been some sort of nuclear disaster only communicated in Danish? (my motto: ‘why think rationally when you can add a little drama?’).
But no, he told me: “People just leave even earlier on Fridays.”
Less work, more Danish pastries, seems like a good deal Photo: Alamy
The official working week in Denmark is 37 hours – far fewer than the 50-plus weeks we were used to putting in back home – but a recent OECD study showed that the average Dane only works 33 hours a week. Denmark also comes top of the world in terms of worker motivation and has the happiest workforce in the EU.
Yeah, because they’re massive slackers! was my initial response. But then I discovered that workers are 12 per cent more productive when they’re in a positive state of mind, making Denmark the second most productive country in the EU.
“There’s this word Danes have,” my husband called out from the sofa where he’d taken up residence to decide how to fill his 65-hour weekend. “It’s ‘arbejdsglæde’,” he goes on: “from ‘arbejde’ the Danish for work and ‘glæde’ – the word for happiness. It literally means ‘happiness at work’.” The word exists exclusively in Nordic languages, I learn, and is considered essential to living the good life in Denmark. “It’s like there’s an expectation that you’ll be happy at work, so Danes make this a priority,” is how he puts it, through a mouthful of crisps: “They don’t do presenteeism – you just get your work done and go home.”
Of course Denmark’s not perfect. By any means. In many ways. And there’s still workplace stress and even high levels of antidepressant use. But this is because Danes expect arbejdsglæde: if they’re unhappy, they do something about it. There isn’t the same culture of ‘soldiering on’, for fear that being honest might impact negatively on your career, that I’ve experienced in the UK. In Denmark, you get help: you take six months off, after which you’re welcomed back into the fold. And with a short working week, you can have a life and get on in life.
This was a radical concept for a die-hard Londoner to get her head around. As a freelancer with no clear demarcation of working hours or even ‘office space’ (the kitchen; the living room; the bath, even – anywhere will do), I found it hard to switch off. So in the spirit of living Danishly, I decided take the no-nonsense Viking approach.
After a hard day at the not-at-all-coalface, I poured myself a medicinal glass of wine, hovered the cursor over ‘Shut Down’ on my laptop, and clicked. There was silence. I could hear my fridge whirring and next-door’s cat having a fight with a hedge. But the world did not end. And I had a startling realisation that I was not nearly as indispensible as I thought I was. This, I decided, was A Good Thing.