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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103 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Right you are! But that's not going to happen in Denmark. I know, I worked in one of the fastest growing companies there, and was only allowed to do exactly as I was told, and any input I had was highly frowned upon, even having Google in my resume. They're laughing stock.

  • Claus True

    Having lived most of my adult life in Florida, but born and raised and worked more than a handful of years in Denmark, I can honestly say, that the work ethic is very different here in the US. Back in the old country we were encouraged to work independently, ask questions and make decisions, but here in Florida we are supposed to follow the leader blindly. Top level managers, mid level managers and supervisors make all the decisions, and in that order. I have stuck to my guns and do all or most of my duties without direct supervision, and probably the reason I am the only worker bee left out of a total of 5 just 5 years ago.

  • Aasiyah Bromley

    Great article!Working from home is wonderful! One must enjoy what one does, it is impossible to find happiness in a career that you do not enjoy. Working from the comfort of my home is great and I certainly enjoy what I do. In order to build an online business working from home make sure to visit http://hubabo.com

  • At my job in the US with a Fortune 500 company, below middle management, I can come in whenever I'd like between 8 am and 8 pm to work my hours. My manager empowers me to make my own decisions. Constant training is available throughout the US in the form of community colleges, MOOC's, librairies, free/cheap technology courses, and many more.
    As for unemployment benefits, I will not attempt to try to expound on the debate already raging across the world and trying to be solved by hundreds (if not thousands) of economists each year. At the same time, trying to simplify the argument that if it works in country A, it will obviously work in country B is a farce. Bureaucracy, size of populations, cultural differences, political differences, etc. make the comparison impossible. There is much we can learn from each other but I grow tired of a "one size fits all" approach when comparing US, Canada, Europe, and the East.

  • The author lacks a certain sense of proportion, I think. These are not "simple office policies." The author himself notes in the conclusion that they are "systemic and cultural differences between the two nations." Even more precisely, the unemployment benefits and corporate governance differences he points out are matters of law. Macroeconomic considerations would make Danish-style unemployment laws politically impracticable in the US, and that pesky thing called the US Constitution would prevent laws imposing such governance rules on private corporations. Denmark is a tiny socialist state, and the US is a global superpower that has twice in the past hundred years had to send its military to save Europe from itself. Countries such as Denmark can easily afford to be indulgent; the US cannot.

  • You are so right! Systemic and cultural differences are what they are. No young American is ever going to grow up to be as even tempered, sensible, and able to speak to any conflict calmly and reasonably given the absolute insane state of American culture. Just look at the Tea Party people as one easy example, if they're not home schooling their children, they are finding many other ways to teach them all the fear, hate, Puritanic shame, and wastful consumption expectations necessary to live in "the greatest country in the world."

  • Rich Jackman

    There is nothing in the US Constitution that would prohibit a law requiring employee members on corporate boards. Corporations are created by government - if you don't register it, it's not legally a corporation - and government has broad authority to establish the rules for them.

    It's also inaccurate to describe Denmark as a socialist state. Quasi-socialist, okay. But there are private corporations galore, small private businesses, banks, etc. and most commerce is private. The government has monopolies on the post office, healthcare and a few other things, as in most countries, but most of the rest is quite capitalist.

  • Peter Meyer

    It is true that Denmark is a socialist regime, and you could have made a valid point by referring to the studies linking general happiness with a low gini score (international study: http://goo.gl/zYdHhm, american study: http://goo.gl/qYqiAa). You could even have linked to the Economist article on said effect (http://economist.com/node/21532214).

    However you tarnish your submission with an unfounded claim to the constitution of the USA, and a standard troll-burp falsely misremembering history. That being said, could you please elaborate on your perception of constitutional law? I'm intrigued. How is it applicable inter partes on the workplace?

  • A model to follow that releases stress related illness and stress at work. All countries should be looking at developing the health, wellbeing and happiness of their workforce. It builds a stronger happier nation that transmits this happiness to their children and so forth. It's encouraging to know that other countries can follow in Denmark's footsteps and step into a brighter and happier future! Smiles from The English Sisters

  • Woot? I was never happier after living in Australia, and I foolishly took a job in Denmark, Copenhagen. Just after one year I found myself with the gravest illness in my life following workplace/society relentless stress. It has been going for 2 years running and I can't see the end of the tunnel...stay away from Denmark if you value your life. You won't have to deal with shady people (landlords) that only understand 5-7 lawyers letters, a society that doesn't have the minimum respect for anyone else around them. They can only muster up any chat while drunk out of their minds, and babble like idiots. In the daytime they're mere shells with very little, if any, inside. Crime is rampant, with cars driving in sidewalks, big motorbikes speeding through bycicle only separate lanes, it's the wild west of disrespect and lack of common sense. I could only imagine what would happen if citizens were allowed to pack some heat. Horrible place.

  • Miroslava Sotakova

    I'm not Danish but have lived there for 2+ years, and think we must have lived in very different countries. While I think I've never seen a difference between a sober and a drunk individual to be so pronounced as in Scandinavia (they are quite reserved normally, not so much on a Friday night), their adherence to e.g. traffic rules is so strict that even Germans complained.

    I've seen small motorbikes on bike-only separate lanes, but often ridden by obvious non-Danes. Btw. the separate bike lanes are everywhere, where do you get them in USA? No wonder if most people use bikes to get to work.

    But I can imagine you'd consider Denmark an unfriendly place if you stayed for years without learning the language. This applies to most European countries for that matter. Except that in the north and the west you can easily survive without the local language, even if being unhappy, in the south or the east you either learn it in 6 months or leave (no communication with the locals otherwise).

  • So you blame "non-Danes", immigrants ? Brilliant. There's the danish mentality. So you can see through their helmets and even recognize them! I am not talking for the USA, I'm not even american, what's your problem with the US? Like pretty much any country besides say India, it's paradise compared to Denmark. Don't know what traffic rules you have observed, I have seen a car driven by chavs on a peon only sidewalk, and motorbikes speeding through the bike lanes and policemen who didn't even blink at the danger that ran by them.

    I am from a southwestern european country, you're blatantly lying, we are really welcoming of visitors to our countries, that's why everyone (even danes) go on holidays everywhere in southern Europe. They get to enjoy a few days per year our lifestyle. Anyone who wants to stay long-term is also welcomed, and plenty of peple are proud and eager to teach the language. It is easy as it gets (latin languages not being too dissimilar from universal English).