5 Simple Office Policies That Make Danish Workers Way More Happy Than Americans

Americans think it's normal to hate their jobs. Let us introduce you to the Danish concept of arbejdsglæde. It means happiness at work. Here's how Danish offices make sure it's happening.

You will often see Denmark listed in surveys as the “happiest country on the planet." Interestingly Danes are not only happy at home, they're also happy at work. According to most studies of worker satisfaction among nations, the happiest employees in the world are in Denmark. The U.S.? Not so much. Here's just one data point: a recent Gallup poll found that 18% of American workers are actively disengaged, meaning they are “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.” The same number for Danish workers is only 10%.

But why are Danish workers so happy compared to their American counterparts? Here are five fundamental differences.

1: Reasonable working hours

I once talked to an American who had gotten a job as a manager at a Danish company. Wanting to prove his worth, he did what he had always done and put in 60 to 70 hours a week. After a month, his manager invited him to a meeting. He was fully expecting to be praised for his hard work, but instead he was asked “Why do you work so much? Is something wrong? Do you have a problem delegating? What can we do to fix this?”

Read more of Kjerulf 's thoughts about workplace happiness in his book Happy Hour is 9 to 5 : How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life and Kick Butt at Work

Some non-Danes wonder if Danes ever work. Not only do Danes tend to leave work at a reasonable hour most days, but they also get five to six weeks of vacation per year, several national holidays and up to a year of paid maternity/paternity leave. While the average American works 1,790 hours per year, the average Dane only works 1,540, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) statistics. Danes also have more leisure hours than any other OECD workers and the link between sufficient leisure and happiness is well established in the research.

The difference in the U.S. is stark, and many American companies celebrate overwork as a sign of commitment. “You have to put in the hours” is the message in the mistaken belief that the more hours you work, the more work you get done. We call this “The Cult of Overwork.” Danish companies, on the other hand, recognize that employees also have a life outside of work and that working 80 hours a week is bad for both employees and the bottom line.

2: Low power distance

In the U.S., if your boss gives you an order, you pretty much do what you're told. In a Danish workplace, extremely few direct orders are ever given and employees are more likely to view them as suggestions.

Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede has quantified the business culture in more than 100 countries on several parameters, one of which is "power distance." A high power distance means that bosses are undisputed kings whose every word is law. U.S. workplaces have a power distance of 40 while Danish workplaces--with a score of 18--have the lowest power distance in the world.

This means that Danish employees experience more autonomy and are more empowered at work. Here's just one example: By law, any Danish workplace with more than 35 employees must open up seats on the board for employees, who are elected to the board by their peers and serve on an equal footing and with same voting powers as all other board members.

3: Generous unemployment benefits

In Denmark, losing your job is not the end of the world. In fact, unemployment insurance seems too good to be true, giving workers 90% of their original salary for two years. In the U.S., on the other hand, losing your job can easily lead to financial disaster. This leads to job lock (i.e. staying in a job you hate) because you can't afford to leave. Additionally, until very recently, losing your job in the States often meant losing your health care which also contributed to job lock but with the Affordable Care Act, this will be mitigated.

Simply put: If you're a Dane and you don't like your job, your chances of quitting that job without risking serious financial problems are much better, forcing companies to treat their employees well or risk losing them.

4: Constant training

Since the mid-1800s, Denmark has focused on life-long education of its workers. This policy continues to this day, with an extremely elaborate set of government, union, and corporate policies that allow almost any employee who so desires to attend paid training and pick up new skills. It's called an “active labor market policy,” and Denmark spends more on these types of programs than any other country in the OECD.

This lets Danish workers constantly grow and develop and helps them stay relevant (not to mention stay employed) even in a changing work environment.

5: A focus on happiness

While the English and Danish languages have strong common roots, there are of course many words that exist only in one language and not in the other. And here’s a word that exists only in Danish and not in English: arbejdsglæde. Arbejde means work and glæde means happiness, so arbejdsglæde is “happiness at work.” This word also exists in the other Nordic languages (Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Icelandic) but is not in common use in any other language on the planet.

For instance, where we Scandinavians have arbejdsglæde, the Japanese instead have karoshi, which means “Death from overwork.” And this is no coincidence; there is a word for it in Danish because Danish workplaces have a long-standing tradition of wanting to make their employees happy. To most Danes, a job isn’t just a way to get paid; we fully expect to enjoy ourselves at work.

The U.S. attitude towards work is often quite different. A few years ago I gave a speech in Chicago, and an audience member told me that “Of course I hate my job, that's why they pay me to do it!” Many Americans hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal. Similarly, many U.S. workplaces do little or nothing to create happiness among employees, sticking to the philosophy that “If you're enjoying yourself, you're not working hard enough.”

The upshot

I'm not trying to paint Danish companies as utopias for workers and their American counterparts as tyrannical hellholes. There are bad Danish workplaces and stellar American ones--Zappos and Google are two that I've personally visited and studied.

But studies have uncovered a number of systemic and cultural differences between the two nations that serve to explain why Danish workers are on average so much happier than American ones.

This goes far beyond happiness. We know from any number of studies that happy workers are more productive and innovative and that consequently, happy companies have happier customers and make more money. This may help explain why Danish workers are among the most productive in the OECD and why Denmark has weathered the financial crisis relatively well, with a current unemployment rate of only 5.4%.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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123 Comments

  • Chris Hopson

    No mention of the cost of living in Denmark compared to the US. 94% higher to eat at a restaurant in Denmark than in America??? ZOIKS!

  • No mention of the tax costs of being a Danish employee. Yes, they enjoy their work because there is very little else. Over half of their wages disappear in taxes to pay for this utopia, and any luxuries they can afford (like maybe a car) has a tax rate that is so high, nobody can afford them!

  • Both true and false. True that a lot more is taken in taxes, but Danish workers don't use nearly as much of their take-home pay on private health insurance, unemployment insurance, retirement saving, or children's-college saving as their American counterparts. What they get to take home, they get to keep. And if nobody can afford a car, who the heck are all these people cluttering up the roads?

  • Not quite happy with what I wrote there. Of course Danes do pay unemployment insurance (if they are sensible), but it is heavily (totally) controlled and state subsidised. Actually it's a very odd system, so I'm not surprised there's some confusion, and not just in the discussion here.

  • Abby Wellumson

    I'm very fortunate to work for a company in the U.S. that does focus heavily on making a happy work environment for workers which is awesome! That said, as someone who is involved in hiring new people, it has been interesting to see how difficult it is for some workers to adapt to the idea of having autonomy in their work. One of the hardest parts of supervising has been getting employees used to the idea they were hired because they are smart and competent so I trust them to make decisions and move forward without looking for approval or direction for most things. Once this happens, however, it's wonderful to see the pride and motivation employees have because they actually "own" their own work. I hope more companies will recognize how much better this system is. Nobody wants to feel like a cog in the machine.

  • "Few people" might be a bit harsh, as Denmark has an unemployment rate of 7% as of February this year.

    But I do agree with what I assume is your point (based on the linked article), that the system is great for those who know how to take advantage of it, in order to live without "contributing" (i.e. working/paying taxes/employing people). When people on long-term welfare are confronted with the not-contributing issue, they usually tend to argue that "they do pay taxes!" - yes, they pay taxes of the welfare money they are given by the government. That doesn't really count.

    Anyways, I believe the 5th point is on spot about "arbejdsglæde". As a Danish entrepreneur I know quite a few business owners, and the general state-of-mind among owners of small/medium-sized companies, is that happy workers is a status symbol. It is a status symbol to contribute with taxes and employment, and the "bosses" in my circle usually compete on who has the happiest employees.

  • Blanche Birenholc Cordero

    Wow, I’m trying to downsize so I can get balance in my life and I have become invisible to the recruiters. I have been labeled as “overqualified” with all the negative connotations and NO ONE has considered downsizing as a positive change in one’s life. It seems to be ok if you have a baby and want to be with the baby and work shorter hours. Turn 50, and you seem to become a little more invisible each year.It seems if you are willing to accept less money (which comes with accepting a smaller job) there must be something wrong with you. The concept of added value appears to be a very foreign concept at least here in North NJ.

  • Allethaire Cullen

    I would dearly love to know how this translates for health care providers in Denmark. As an American nurse for over 30 years, in positions ranging from staff nurse to nursing professor, I have never had a position where I worked less than 55 hours a week -- usually more -- and it has almost always been blamed on a "nursing shortage." Is it possible that health care is adequately staffed in Denmark? Is it possible that Danes somehow have escaped the "I-must-meet-every-need" culture that plagues nurses in most (if not all) other regions? I am intrigued!

  • Frederikke Michael Madsen

    Not really. Hospitals are understaffed in Denmark as well. However people are employed for a specific number of hours (the most common is 37 hours a week), and if they stay longer they get overtime pay. Because of the budgets the staff has to run faster and get more done in the same hours. They're not allowed to just stay longer to get extra work done. Some people tend to stay an extra half hour or come in a little early to be well prepared though. The reason for understaffed hospitals in Denmark is not lack of nurses. It's lack of money to pay the nurses.

  • That's the most amazing article about job I've ever read! I agree many people hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal while this is absurd! Confucius once sais "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." But people are afraid to think outside the box and find the job they like. You shouldn't be afraid to search for perfect job - to spend more than 10 years (for example) for a work you hate seems to me to be an act of criminal. Use different resources to find job, use effective tips. http://resumewritinglab.com/ is a good website for job hunters, it contains good posts and provides with tips and some positive thinking, I like it!

  • Colin Cody

    Couple things wrong with this. First, if Happiness were such an important component of labor productivity, American workers would not be 25% more productive than workers from Denmark (GDP per hour worked is 57.5 in USA and 45.9 in Denmark.) Secondly, the second point of Power Distance is not the best measure to use. Having studied under Hofstede, the difference between 40 and 18 is negligible in studying power distance and in fact both countries score low on that measure. What dimension you really want to look at to differentiate American office culture and Danish office culture is Hofstede's Masculine-Feminine dimension. Masculine office cultures stress, hours worked, success, achievement, and competition. Feminine office culture stresses, care of workers, consensus, quality of life. Any Dane, such as yourself, would find the American office culture too "masculine" because the culture you grew up in is distinctly feminine like most Scandinavian countries and Holland.

  • outraged32

    As a high-performing and financially successful American who's been in the workforce for about 12 years - personally, I would ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY, DEFINITELY, 100% rather have a higher happiness level at work than a higher 'productivity' level. Obviously, this is coming from the employee-centered point of view without regard to the performance of the company. But, I have been extremely productive at companies where I felt like I wasn't getting enough of 1 or more: experience, knowledge, money, free time...in short - happiness. So I left ...over and over again...on to the next and - so much for their performance levels.
    And really, is the point of living just to work and be as productive as possible? I have met FAR TOO MANY PEOPLE (most but not all Americans) who ascribe to this mindset, which is a large part of our, as overworked Americans, overall unhappiness and poor health relative to other 1st world countries.

  • I hope you're not calling the Scandinavians sissies. That's what it feels like. And how useless such a simple and artificial the dichotomy seems, masculine/feminine. Can't we do better? And lastly, productivity. To cause your workers to have "no life" outside of work may be "productive" from the company's point of view, but hey, man, you're human, too. Try to answer not just for yourself: at what cost to the human? And admit that, no, we are not saving the world by working long hours, you big USA hero you.

  • Whilst constant training is great for existing employees and is becoming ever popular with UK-based companies, it prevents new talent entering the workplace thus leading to an unemployment crisis. Employers in the IT and engineering sectors tend to retain their workforce as new talent is simply unavailable, as opposed to keeping them happy! We’re focussing on this topic at the moment over on www.emptylemon.co.uk if you’d like to find out more!

  • One thing that helps workplace mobility in Denmark is the long parental leave. This creates a large pool of temporary (6-12 month) jobs which are often a foot-in-the-door for people looking for something more permanent.

  • kitty-tonkin

    This is great! there is a lot of wisdom to be taken away from countries who get somethings just right! Training and valuing an employers opinions are really important ways to get them engaged in their individual jobs and in the companies focus.