Of Brits and Danes and happiness at work

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.

Cheerio, elevenses and stiff upper lip are examples of highly British phrases that have no direct Danish equivalent.

But here’s a word that exists only in Danish and not in English: arbejdsglæde.

I know that to most English-speakers this looks like a random jumble of letters you’d get if you tossed a bunch of Scrabble tiles on the floor, but there is meaning behind it.

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 not in any other language on the planet. I’ve checked!

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.

I’ve recently been doing some work for Hewlett-Packard in England, helping them promote their mobile products (laptops and mobile phones). The idea is that mobile technology gives employees flexiblity at work and flexibility makes us happy.

This means I’ve been talk to a lot of Brits and appearing in the British media, and I think I can safely say, that the British approach to work is quite different than the Scandinavian one.

Few people in Britain seem to expect to be happy at work. Their focus seems to be on putting in the hours and getting paid. To most Britons, a job is just a job – and work is not compatible with any notions of enjoyment or happiness.

One BBC radio interviewer even asked me if it wasn’t fine to be miserable, if being miserable makes you happy.

No. No, no, no!

Being miserable at work, or even just being sort of OK but not really at work is no longer enough, for three very specific reasons.

First reason: time. We spend more of our waking hours at work than on anything else. We spend more time at work than with our friends, families and children combined. If you’re unhappy at work, you’ll spend a large part of your life being miserable.

Second reason: health. Hating your job can make you sick. Worst case, it can kill you. Studies show that people who hate theirn jobs run a much higher risk of contracting serious diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Third reason: money! Happy companies make more money, because their employees are more creative, productive, service-minded and innovative.

The results of these two different attitudes is clear: While the Danes have the highest levels of happiness at work, Brits are… not happy. Recent studies have shown that up to a third of all Brits actively dislike work, while still more neither like it nor loathe it.

Interestingly, you might think that since Danes like their jobs so much, they’d be working more hours. You’d be wrong. Britons are the workaholics of Europe putting in more hours per worker than even those industrious Germans.

And seeing as Brits work so hard, you’d think they’d get more work done than those annoyingly cheerful Danes. You’d be wrong again. Worker productivity is in fact higher in Denmark and Denmark has the world’s best business climate according to the Economist.

So here’s my challenge to British companies, managers and employees everywhere: Put happiness at work first. Realize once and for all that life’s too short to spend so many hours in jobs that are at best tolerable and at worst hell on earth.

In short – let’s see some more arbejdsglæde in Britain.

26 thoughts on “Of Brits and Danes and happiness at work”

  1. You say:
    “Happy companies make more money, because their employees are more creative, productive, service-minded and innovative.”
    “Danish workplaces have a long-standing tradition of wanting to make their employees happy. To most Danes, a job isn

  2. @Matt I don’t have any scientific evidence but I’ll shoot off the hip and say that the number of success stories per capita is exceptionally high in Scandinavia (Nokia, Volvo, Ikea, etc). Don’t know if that has anything to do with the happiness, though. But in general I think that there should be enough evidence of the fact that companies with happy people are more successful than the ones where people work in misery.

    Re “the industruous Germans”. Actually Germany has traditionally had really strong labour unions and as a consequence the standard work weeks have in some fields gone as low as 32hrs/week. The trend has changed during the last decade but I think Germans still have fairly compact work weeks.

  3. And that is one of the big reasons I got out of England and moved to Spain, less money but the job is far more enjoyable and has a lot more meaning…..siestas and far less travel to get to and from work help as well.

    They need to grasp the fact that working 10 hours a day is not getting 10 hours work done…..it is more productive doing 8 hours a day of concentrated effort than a 10 hour slog.

    It is ok to love your job and to be excited about it……but in England “Tell Me Why I Don’t Like Mondays” (Boomtown Rats) is an anthem…..says it all really.

  4. I agree with Dr. K – this isn’t just a British thing.

    Australia is the exact same. It has a real “overwork” philosophy in the workplace… where lots of overtime is almost expected. The sole purpose of having a job here is to get money, and not enjoying yourself while at it is almost the norm.

    I suspect this is the case in more countries other than just Britain, America and Australia.

    Also, on the point about words for happiness at work – I remember reading somewhere that many old African tribes used the same word for “work” and “play”. Funny how nowadays they many people don’t even associate the two with each other.

    (BTW, this is my first comment on your blog. Just wanted to say, honestly, this is one of the best blogs/sites on the internet. Awesome job.)

  5. @Matt M.:

    I think we may be over-simplifying things, if we say that the companies where the employees are happier make the most money. In fact, Alexander said “more money” and not “most money” – which I believe is right. There are a bunch of other factors involved. Or better put; I think there are other /values/ involved. I’m sure that a lot of slave owners had very profitable companies, but I doubt that there was much happiness at work (the great question is, if the companies of the slave owners hadn’t been much more successful if they had released the potential and strains of the people there – I sure think so).

    But… – a bit of data; three Scandinavian countries take three of the top six slots on the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness ranking – that’s not bad!

  6. As a Japanese living in the US and was once married to half Swede, I can’t miss articles like this. Japanese certainly make work miserable. And Americans are not much better really. I have never been to Europe and didn’t realize the difference between Danes and Brits — although I worked with both at my previous job (in Tennessee, USA).

    I am very curious why European economy is doing so much better than the US. Again, excuse me for thinking Europe as a whole, because that is the stats I have seen — that Europeans work less hours and are more productive than Americans. What is the secret? I have asked this question to some Europeans (mostly Swiss) and they could not answer — I guess they just work the way they know how to work and don’t analyze.

    I’d be very interested to read your take on this. . .

  7. Hi Alex,

    first of all thanks for all your magnificent posts, which are very inspiring. Working for a government organization usually described usually described as “not a happy bunch”, I have seen so much improvement around me after reading some of your advice (and your book).

    I would just like to correct you on the statement: “This word also exists in the other Nordic languages (Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Icelandic) but not in any other language on the planet. I

  8. Alex,

    A great post, as evidenced by the comments already received.

    It is interesting that the first of these called for greater empirical evidence to support your argument. The sad fact is that you do have quite a hard sell pushing the concept, because the first reaction of any businessman is, “How will making my people happy improve my bottom-line?” The evidence is there, but it does often tend to be seen as “too soft.” Yet, this may be partly because the issues are so pervasive and actually run so much deeper. Thus the implications are more than just commercial.

    Is there any correlation between “arbeidsvreude” (Afrikaans for Happiness at Work – although that is cheating because Afrikaans is originally derived from Flemish more even than Dutch) and the social bottom line? You cite health, and have previously said that Denmark features at or near the top of the quality of life charts, but I would turn that around and say where does it feature on some of the more nagative measures? e.g. What are you binge drinking figures vs the rest of the world? Or your per capita prison demographics? How much of a problem is hooliganism? etc.etc. I would hypothesise that all these are secondary consequences of what could perhaps, for want of any other way of describing it, be said to be “an exaggerated capitalist approach.”

    Only last night I was listening to a respected reporter/analyst/author say that despite the highest level of personal economic well-being of any generation in history, ours is the most pessimistic and dissatisfied. (this was talking about Britain, but as your other writers have indicated it is far more widespread than that.) Is this connected to a lack of self-worth derived from not being happy at work? Undoubtedly, I would say, although – as watching any “reality” show will tell you, I think the problem is exacerbated by unrealistic aspirations.

    These are all issues that you and I are trying to address, but I think that sometimes the issues are so complex that people resist because they are just too daunting.



  9. Hi Alex,

    Great post! I completely agree with the three reasons you mentioned! I want to suggest a fourth one which I think is very important! ! It

  10. The basic reason for organizing a happy workplace is basic psychology. When we are stressed, we focus on the threat and we shut down everything else. We also want to warn everyone else of the threat so we put a lot of energy into spreading our misery.
    When we are happy, we think laterally and generate ideas (and pass on our happiness!).

    Why are English-speaking countries so miserable at work? Misery loves company! We need to cheer up our managers!!

    If you are interested in a British-American view that is not entirely miserable, check out corporate poet David Whyte. There is not a lot of his work on the internet. You can find some on my blog but it is generally best to go to Amazon and spend a few quid. If you aren’t used to poetry, try his prose and his CD’s (good for the car or train). He has a collected anthology of poetry as well.

    He isn’t all good cheer – he talks of meaningfulness which looks at the good and the bad. A life that nourishes the spirit.

  11. I agree with David: arbeidsvreugde is a Dutch word. But I have another Dutch word to add: werkplezier (werk = work, plezier = pleasure). So now the Dutch even have two words for happiness at work!

  12. “Happy companies make more money, because their employees are more creative, productive, service-minded and innovative.”

    Well, as a Brit living in Copenhagen, I wouldn’t take issue with the creativity or innovation, but service-minded and productive? If productivity is on the increase, it is beginning to reverse a long-term downward trend, according to Nationalbanken‘s 2007Q4 report.

    And I have rarely had the service in Denmark you would expect from US and, yes, even UK companies.

    Example 1: I recently ordered some PC components from PC-Huset. I credited the money on the day of the order, and went on holiday for a few days. I checked the order status while on holiday, saw it was still “Afventer” (waiting payment), emailed to ask what the hold-up was, and got an email back saying that the money hadn’t been received. I waited for another couple of days, checked again, and was shocked to find that they’d cancelled the order. I emailed to complain again, and got a rather perfunctory email back saying, sorry for the delay, they’d lost the order. Nothing else, other than that there would be some additional (unspecified) “merchandise” being included. No offer of a courier or discount. I still don’t have the order, and nearly 4 weeks have gone by. Guess who I’m never ordering from again?

    Which leads me to example 2: Post Danmark. They lost a package delivered from the UK. I know they had it, as I have the little postcard that they deliver when you are out. But in spite of the fact that there is a tracking number, and the value of the goods was over 500 DKK, I still have no resolution or offer of compensation 2 months after they lost it. Fortunately, we ordered from Mute Records, who have credited us with the value of the order, almost without question. That’s service. If I ever get compensation from Post Danmark, it goes straight back to Mute to reward.them for their helpfulness. And guess who I *will* be ordering from again?

    So I don’t feel particularly impressed with the service-mindedness of Danish companies right now.

  13. Right on! Americans need this as well! I believe that happy companies make more money, but more importantly they are more successful. This success may come in the form of money (and likely in some way does). However, what about looking at the health of employees, customer feedback and increased productivity as success? When there is a strong foundation, the money will come.

    The strongest foundation? A happy business owner. I’m hosting a free teleseminar outlining five easy ways for small business owners to renew their relationship with their business. For a sneak preview and registration details, visit http://www.danazurbuchen.com/blog.

  14. Kjerulf, Chief Happiness Officer, recently wrote a post entitled Of Brits and Danes and Happiness at Work. Alex tells us the Nordic languages, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Icelandic, have a word

  15. Wow, this is an amazing article. I really enjoyed this. Working and living in the US as an attorney for 18 years – this was the missing piece. I consider work happiness as the core issue for us Americans. Thanks for the post. Looking forward to even more interaction.

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