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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176 Comments

  • Francesca Terrell

    As an American living in Denmark (and one who has worked here for more than 12 years), I'm sorry to say that happiness of Danes -at work and at home - is greatly exaggerated!

  • Oliver Thornton

    Is this just statistical happiness? In North Korea they keep telling us how happy their people are.

    Happiness is largely about choices and when considerably more than 50% of the sweat of your labour is taken from you forcibly, then your choices are more limited.

    Did you also know that car purchase tax is 260% - thats called limiting choices

  • Thomas Gjerulff

    Im a dane. I think this article sucks. There is at total lack of substance and cultural depth in the so called facts. All in all everything comes down to focus on and ability to deliver the core product. A shared responsibility between employee and employer. In that sense Denmark is no different than any other country or growth oriented market around the globe. All socialistic assumptions and fluffy romantic ideas about how the benefit system and so on works are a joke and an insult to me as a responsible and proactive professional competing to make a living and a meaningful life!

  • Francesca Terrell

    I agree, Thomas. I am an American living in Denmark and have been working here for more than 12 years. It fails to mention how much talk in the media there is about how stressed out everyone seems to feel and how that low power distance leads to slow decision-making - or failure to carry out decisions already made, and thus, to employee dissatisfaction!

  • But you cannot deny benefits as a country that you already have, you tend to live as a king in the world of places with less than 50% you have gotten.

  • Jeannette Krog

    From a Dane: Most of what you write here is true, Alexander. Except we only get 90% of our income up to a certain amount. So most wellpaid workers go down in income. Still, it is an income, you can survive on, even though you may have to move if you don't get a job again after some months. Productivity is harder than in US according to one of my friends who worked in US for years and came back. He has a wellpaid responsible job. About light: There are various rules about how working life should not damage your health. I don't know if there are rules about light, but I don' know any places in Denmark where people work in the cubicles I've seen from America. It must be terrible. Interesting to hear those negative comments.... :-)

  • Zack Perkins

    Low number of working hours, high number of vacation days, generous unemployment, free health- and childcare benefits. How is it paid for? By a minimum tax rate of 43% on individual earnings over $7700 USD, 62% maximum rate, and a VAT of 25%. HOLY CRAP! Talk about your "nanny state". So a Danish engineer works 1540 hours at $100 per hour, makes $154000, gives minimum $67000 back in taxes and pays 25% more for everything than I do? The only way he's happy is if he stopped thinking about everything when he was nine. Typical socialist brainwash folderol.

  • Corwin H. Solo

    How much are your monthly health insurance premiums? Denmark has single-payer healthcare, so the Danish don't pay for health insurance.

    Add those premiums to your income taxes and you may find that you're actually paying out about what they do. Yes, their sales tax is higher. They also don't have the crumbling roads and bridges we have in the US.

    You get what you pay for.

    And, even though I hesitate to ask, what do you think a "nanny state" has to do with tax rates? Answer: nothing. A "nanny state" is one where the government or its policies are overprotective or interfering unduly with personal choice.

    You also missed the mark with the term "socialist" - Denmark has a multi-party Parliamentary government.

    Socialism is a system characterised by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy, which this article made zero mention of.

    Why are you so hateful and ignorant of simple facts that are so readily available?

  • Oliver Thornton

    No it doesnt. This isn't the US, cost of health care is less than half so the health premium does not account for that.

    You also misunderstand socialism. Europe is a socialist run continent, the only differences are the shades of red.

  • "Red" is for communism, bud. Socialism is a different animal, and Europe is most decidedly not a "socialist run continent" (whatever the heck that's supposed to mean)... they're just more progressive than we are in the US. You can try to smear them with non-sequiturs if you like, but it's helpful, if you're going to pontificate, to make sure you know what you're talking about.

  • Do we further want to increase the divide between rich and poor or do we want to work on a more socially and economically just society? Do we want to increase productivity for the sake of productivity and an ever growing industry that will inevitably deplete our natural resources faster and faster or do we want to think about alternative ways to be happy that are more in line with what our planet can supply. It's a very American idea that everyone can make their fortune through hard and dedicated work alone. High income alone, however, made very few people happy - but see for yourself.

  • Happiness isn't a product of either social equality, environmental policies, or income (high or low). Happiness is an unnatural state of being that can't be purchased or legislated. Happiness is a product of mental toughness. Mentally tough people can be happy in a nuclear wasteland, or in a fascist state, or living under a bridge without a penny to their name.

  • Clay Asbury

    "For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself ." ~Viktor Frankl

  • Tracey Garet

    I don't think that if you hate your job you may not be willing to give it all your best. As you said it is believed to be popular to hate your job but we still perform well moving the company forward. http://www.sd-webhosting.net

  • H Paul Honsinger

    Finnish is not a Nordic language. Rather, it is a Uralic language--which group is not even part of the Indo-European language family. Finnish is less like Swedish and Norwegian than English is like Greek. This is something that is taught in middle school geography--that the author of this article would get such an elementary fact wrong casts doubt on the the whole thing.

  • True - and thanks for the correction. However, Finland is a Nordic country, so this actually helps to illustrate the point, by showing that this word is only in common use in the Nordic countries because it's part of the culture, not simply due to common language roots.

  • patsaison

    Productivity must be really low in Denmark, but then they don't care about it, so it does not matter. I guess it could be a nice life, once you get used to it.

  • Sookie Nula

    Excellent article! Also, don't most European and Northern European companies give 6 weeks vacation immediately upon hire?