Category Archives: Politics

Democracy and how we govern

11 government policies that promote happiness at work to give a country a competitive advantage

Discussing public policy in Dubai

Given that happy companies have significant competitive advantages, governments have a strong interest in enacting public policies that promote happiness at work in their country.

But what exactly could a government do to achieve this?

At the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this month I was part of a panel that discussed how public policy could promote workplace happiness.

We had  a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion and came up with many cool ideas. Some of these may seem radical or weird but many of them are already in place in countries around the world.

Here are 11 ideas I would suggest:

1: Regulate and inspect psychological workplace safety

Pretty much every country has a government agency that sets requirements for physical workplace safety and sends out inspectors to visit e.g. factories and construction sites to make sure that the correct safety equipment is being used and that workers are following safety regulations.

So why not do the same for psychological workplace safety?

In the Scandinavian countries, this is actually in place. The Working Environment Authorities conduct inspections in cases where they suspect that working conditions are psychologically unsafe. They inspect things like:

  • Amount of work and time pressure
  • High emotional costs of labor
  • Bullying and sexual harassment
  • Contradictory or unclear work requirements

If they find that the workplace is psychologically unsafe they can issue orders that the company must follow. In serious cases they can even issue fines.

Breaking a leg because you trip over something at work is painful and can take a long time to heal. But make no mistake about it: being bullied by your boss or working under constant stress can affect your mental and physical health just as severely.

Therefore it makes perfect sense to mandate standards for psychological workplace safety and inspect workplaces to make sure they’re followed.

2: Regulate against permanent overwork

In Denmark, we have laws protecting employees from permanent overwork. The result is that Danes tend to leave work at a reasonable hour most days, and 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 1,450.

Even Japan where the culture of overwork is so rampant that they have a word called karoshi that means death from overwork, is trying to enact similar laws:

The law, introduced as a response to the social problem that has been serious since the late 1980s, makes it the state’s responsibility to take steps to prevent death from overwork. It calls on the government to study the situation of heavy workloads that impair the health of company workers and lead them to take their own life.

Protecting employees from permanent overwork makes them happier and more productive.

3: Mandate employee representation on board of directors

Here’s another idea from Scandinavia – give employees representation on the board of directors:

Employees in Danish companies employing 35 employees or more, are entitled to elect a number of representatives to the board of directors. The number elected by employees should correspond to half the number elected by those who own the company at the general meeting, and should be at least two.

Crucially these employee representatives are not mere observers – they have all the same powers and responsibilities as the “regular” board members.

This means that employees are informed about and have influence on major strategic decisions.

4: Make government workplaces role models

I would love to see governments take a leading role by making public sector workplaces among the best in the country.

Sadly, the public sector usually has a bit of an inferiority complex. Since they usually can’t offer the same salaries, perks and incentives as private sector workplaces, they feel that they can’t be as good workplaces.

However, it turns out that those factors matter very little for workplace happiness, as long as they’re fair. However, public sector workplaces have a huge potential for being happy because they can offer something that many private workplaces struggle to give their employees: Meaningful work.

Public organizations almost by definition work for an important purpose. Schools educate children, hospitals heal the sick, city planners create better and more liveable cities - even the garbage men play a huge role in making people’s lives easier and better.

By contrast, let’s say  you work in an ad agency. The end result of your hard work might be that some company somewhere sells a fraction more detergent. Is that really meaningful to you?

If public sector workplaces would take the lead on offering their employees things like meaningful work, great leadership, good working conditions, work/life balance, professional development and employee empowerment they could serve as role models for all workplaces.

5: Promote lifelong learning

When a government makes education available cheap or free to its citizens, there is a much bigger chance that they get to realize their full potential and become happy at work.

And this should not be limited to young people. Lifelong learning should make it easy and affordable for anyone to upgrade their skills so they can get different or more interesting work.

6: Require companies to measure and report on employee happiness

Pretty much all countries require strict financial reporting from companies.

So why not require companies to measure and report on employee happiness?

7: Require all government suppliers to be certified happy workplaces

The government of any nation buys huge amounts of goods and services from private sector companies.

No government should knowingly buy from a company that used slave labor or child labor or polluted the environment.

So why not require that all government suppliers be good workplaces?

8: Don’t hobble trade unions

Trade unions have a somewhat mixed reputation and can fall victim to corruption or cronyism.

However, on the whole it is clear from the research that collective bargaining is a powerful tool to improve working conditions not just for union members but for all workers in many areas including compensation, vacation time, maternity/paternity leave and workplace safety.

Employers and lobbyists in some countries are trying to restrict unions, making it easier for employers to keep costs low. If a government protects workers’ rights to organize, the result is better working conditions and happier workplaces.

9: Celebrate the best workplaces

Several private companies conduct surveys to find the best workplaces in different countries, but these rankings are always limited to those workplaces that pay to be included. This limits their usefulness.

So why not let the state publish a ranking of the best workplaces in the country?

10: Make unemployment benefits widely available and liveable

When unemployment benefits are too low to live on or too hard to obtain, employees are locked in to their jobs, because leaving a bad workplace could have disastrous financial consequences.

However, when unemployment benefits support a decent standard of living and are available also to people who quit a job, getting away from a toxic workplace is much easier.

11: Make bad workplaces and managers legally responsible for the harm they cause

If a workplace is run in a way that systematically harms its employees mental health, causing stress and depression, it should be possible to hold the leadership of that company legally accountable.

We already do this for workplaces that don’t live up to physical workplace safety regulations – serious violations can lead to fines or even jail time for the managers responsible.

I think it makes perfect sense to do the same for companies or managers that harm their employees mental health.

The point

Any government has an interest in enacting public policies that strengthen the competitive advantage of companies in that country.

However, this is often done by cutting corporate taxes, deregulation or corporate subsidies – none of which have much of a track record of success.

If a government is truly serious about giving companies a sustained, strong competitive advantage, they should really focus on policies that create happier workplaces.

This would not only be good for the companies and the employees, it would also be good for the national economy, as it would boost national productivity and reduce absenteeism, stress and related healthcare costs.

Shouldn’t your country have a happiness minister?


The UAE’s minister for happiness opens the conference.

I am back from Dubai where I spent 3 days at the World Government Summit along with 4,000 other delegates.

One theme running through the entire event was how government policies can further the happiness of citizens. I was invited to participate as an expert in happiness at work.

And the event was REALLY fascinating. They had many of the biggest names in the field come and speak, including Ed Diener, Sir Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs and the prime minister of Bhutan where they have been focusing the country’s development on happiness for the last 15-20 years.

Here I am with Sir Richard Layard:

The closing speakers were the economist Joseph Stiglitz and Elon Musk.

I am hugely impressed with the scope of the event and also with the consistent focus on how governments can focus on the wellbeing of their citizens, rather than just on economic growth. I think this is a fascinating vision for the future of public policy making.

And the two are not the same. It is entirely possible to create economic growth in a way that does not make people any happier. Here is a graph showing how GDP per capita grew consistently over a 30-year period in the UK while life satisfaction stayed flat:

So shouldn’t your country have a happiness minister? I wish mine did!

Job lock vs. flexicurity. What would you prefer?

Health Care

I rarely go into politics or public policy on this blog, but I’m going to make an exeption today.

I’ve been following the US debate on health care pretty closely and the biggest issue currently in play is whether or not the US government should offer health care in addition to the private insurance companies.

In the current US system, where there is no so-called public option, many people have health insurance through their workplace and this system has one serious often overlooked drawback, namely job lock:

Millions of Americans are in what’s called “job lock.” They can’t leave their jobs because they feel they can’t get the same health insurance benefits on their own or at the next job.

A new poll by NPR News, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government shows that one out of four Americans has experienced job lock, in the last couple of years, or someone in their immediate family has. That’s despite legislation enacted six years ago to deal with the problem

In other words, you may hate your job but if you quit you and your family no longer have health insurance. This article looks at job lock in detail.

In Denmark on the other hand, we have pretty much the exact opposite: Health care is public and paid for through our taxes. In addition, Denmark has a unique labor market approach called flexicurity.

Flexicurity means that on one hand it’s easy for companies to fire employees but on the other hand, you get very generous unemployment benefits, ie. 90% of your salary.

The drawback to this system is obvious: Very high taxes.

The advantages are many, though. First of all, the Danish economy has been doing very well. Even now, during the financial crisis, we’re doing better than most of Europe and unemployment is still below 5%.

From a standpoint of happiness at work, there is no doubt that the Danish system is best. When it’s easy and safe to quit a job there is much less risk in leaving a job you hate. Even if you choose not to quit, just knowing that you could makes things more bearable. Hating you job AND knowing that you can’t quit makes everything worse.

Even the fact that it’s easy to fire people increases happiness at work. Seriously! It means that companies can fire employees who don’t perform well or who don’t fit in.

In countries with very strong labour protection laws, it can be almost impossible to fire anyone – meaning that underperforming employees stay in their jobs and everyone else has to pick up the slack. Also, remember that unhappiness at work is highly contagious, so one unhappy employee can easily drag down the whole department.

So in my opinion (and I am NOT an economist, so take this with a grain of salt) the flexicurity model makes Danes happier at work – and as I’ve previously mentioned happy workplaces are more productive, innovative and profitable.

The American model on the other hand, makes people less happy at work and thus decreases productivity.

Your take

What do you think? Have you ever experienced job lock? What advantages or drawbacks can you see to the US or the Danish model?

Related posts

Steve Forbes doesn’t get it – or why having the world’s highest taxes is a good thing

Taxes

Steve Forbes was in Denmark this week on a European tour, meeting with political and business leaders. His main message was that while Denmark has arguably the strongest economy in Europe right now, the high danish taxes are limiting our economic growth.

And danish taxes are very high: The highest tax bracket kicks in after only 40.000$ earned, and you pay 60% taxes on everything you earn over that. This money is used to finance a very high level of public services, including free health care, schools and universities for everybody.

The high tax level also finances what is called the danish flex-security model: In Denmark it’s relatively easy to fire employess (flexibility) but unemployed danes enjoy great benefits (security). Compare this to Sweden where it’s very, very difficult to lay employees off because the unions have enormous influence or to the US where unemployment benefits are not as generous.

Forbes argues that the economic success Denmark is currently enjoying comes in spite of the high tax levels, and said “just imagine what you could achieve with lower taxes.” His argument goes something like this:

  1. Because taxes are so high, working more doesn’t pay much, therefore people work less
  2. If taxes were lower (say 40% in the top bracket instead of 60%) people would work more
  3. People would also make more money, meaning the state would take in the same amount of money in taxes
  4. People working harder would result in increased economic growth

I think he’s wrong, wrong, wrong, and I’ll tell you why!
Continue reading Steve Forbes doesn’t get it – or why having the world’s highest taxes is a good thing

Reboot democracy interview

Reboot politicsI’m speaking at the Reboot conference in Copenhagen on june 1-2. My topic is how we can reboot democracy, which is absolutely necessary because I believe politics is broken.

Leading up to the conference, I was interviewed by podcaster extraordinaire Nicole Simon. We had a great chat about politics, why people don’t care for it and what it would take to get us all involved in creating the future of the world (main keyword: It has to be fun!).

You can find the podcast here.

Funky government

FunkyKaren Høeg, a good friend of mine, works for the Danish Commerce and Companies Agency and if you think that’s a mouthful you should see it in Danish: Erhvervs- og Selskabsstyrelsen. They are:

the official place of registration for Danish Businesses. In parallel the DCCA administers legislations regulating Businesses, amongst others the Companies Act and the Company Accounts Act.

Before you get too many images of a dusty, boring government agency rubberstamping it old-skool, I’ll have you know that they’re actually pretty with-it.

How can we know that? Because they made we are funky one of their core values. Yep, that’s right, a government agency that wants to be funky. This is great news, and a good sign that public work places can actually be very modern and fun to work at.

However, the “funky” value did result in one hilarious misunderstanding. During a parliament debate, a politician from the opposition asked the The Minister of Economic and Business Affairs a lot of pointed questions about this choice of values. He simply couldn’t understand why they would want to call themselves funky. Turns out he didn’t know what funky meant, and had looked it up in a dictionary, which said:

Funky
1. Having a moldy or musty smell: funky cheese; funky cellars.
2. Having a strong, offensive, unwashed odor.

Let’s reboot democracy

Reboot the voteI’ll be presenting at this years Reboot conference in june. Here’s the intro to my session:

Let’s take back politics
Most democracies are showing serious strain, including distrust of politicians, disproportionate lobbyist influence, low voter turnout and media spin. In the face of this many people simply give up, feeling that “there’s just no way I can make a difference.”

It’s time for us to take back politics. Let’s discuss how we can use existing web technologies to create a political process where you and I can contribute directly and regularly, instead of just voting every four years. Because politics is too important to leave to the politicians.

Mitch Kapor has apparently been thinking the same:

The internet, if kept open and accessible to all, is a tool we can use to reform our politics and create new democratic processes and institutions. By using the internet and building upon its open decentralized architecture, we can help give every person a voice and offer them a forum to participate in creating a healthy politics. The internet provides the tools to build bottom-up systems that are both globally interconnected and locally controlled.

I have a deep feeling, that introducing a new, bottom-up political process is the best way to solve many of todays problems, and the only way to really develop our societies. Let’s do it! I wrote about this previously here and here.

CSR – Doing well by doing good

CSR works

Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, is defined as voluntary efforts by businesses to contribute to society. It may include

  • Workplace issues (such as training and equal opportunities)
  • Human rights
  • The business’ impact on the community
  • Reputation, branding and marketing
  • Ethical investment
  • Environment
  • Ethics and corporate governance

I think CSR is great and many corporations practice it already. One percent for the planet, pioneered by Patagonia, is one of my favorite examples.

And now something even more interesting is going on right here in Denmark: we’re implementing a national policy to enhance corporate growth and sustainable social development by teaching small and mid-sized businesses about CSR .

I just had a very exciting meeting with Karen Høeg, an old friend who’s currently working on that very project for the Danish Commerce and Companies Agency.

The project kicked off formally last week and will educate 12.000 danish leaders and employees from small and mid-sized businesses in CSR, helping them to increase their profits while doing something good for society and the planet. It is, as far as I know, the largest CSR project in the world.

Studies show that companies who do CSR make more money than those who don’t. Quite simply, doing good helps businesses do well.

I have a simple explanation for why this is the case: Doing good feels good. It makes people happy. And happy people are the best way to business success.

In my post about Creating a Happy and Rich Business, I outlined the six practices of happy workplaces, and two of these are “Care” and “Think and act long-term”. CSR is an expression of both of these. That’s why it makes people happy, and that’s why it’s good for corporate profits and corporate growth.

But then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I? :o)