You will often see Denmark listed as one of the “happiest countries on the planet.” Interestingly Danes are not only happy at home, they’re also happy at work and according to most studies of worker satisfaction among nations, the happiest employees in the world are in Denmark.
Here’s just one data point: Gallup 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 much happier than their counterparts around the world? Here are five fundamental differences that explain what’s going on.
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?”
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 1,780 hours and the average South Korean 2,024 hours per year, the average Dane only works 1,408, 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 to other countries is stark. Many companies around the world 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 many countries, 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 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. Danish workplaces–with a score of 18-have the lowest power distance in the world. Just for comparison, Belgium has a power distance of 65, China clocks in at 80 and Malaysia holds the world record at 100.
By law, any Danish workplace with more than 35 employees must open up seats on the board for employees. 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 up to 90% of their original salary for two years. In the U.S., for instance, losing your job can easily lead to financial disaster and loss of health insurance. This leads to job lock i.e. staying in a job you hate because you can’t afford to leave.
Simply put: If you’re a Dane and you don’t like your job, you can quit that job without risking serious financial problems, forcing companies to treat their employees well or risk losing them.
4: CONSTANT TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT
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. It also makes their jobs richer and more interesting.
5: A FOCUS ON HAPPINESS
Here’s a word that exists only in the Scandinavian languages: Arbejdsglæde. Arbejde means work and glæde means happiness, so arbejdsglæde is “happiness at work.” This word is not in common use in any other language on the planet.
Many people around the world hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal.
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.
In other countries, the attitude towards work is often very 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 people around the world hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal. Similarly, many workplaces around the world 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.”
I’m not trying to paint Danish companies as utopias for workers and their international counterparts as tyrannical hellholes. There are bad Danish workplaces and stellar non-Danish 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 Denmark and the rest of the world that serve to explain why Danish workers are on average so much happier.
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 the Danish economy continues to do so well.