You can take a holiday there every four weeks and everyone has a coffee break twice a day. The Guardian labels the Swedish work culture as ‘amazingly healthy’. But is that true and what exactly does that culture entail?
The clichés are correct, that is the feeling that epidemiologist Nele Brusselaers got when she went to work in Sweden. At exactly half past three, colleagues left the workplace to pick up their children and twice a day – at half past nine and at half past three – it was time for the ‘fika’. That actually just means coffee, but in Sweden there is a whole culture attached to it.
“It’s a concept, one state of mind, an attitude and an important part of Swedish culture,” as swedishfood.com describes it. Everyone takes the time to talk to each other over a cup of coffee. “It takes half an hour each time,” says Brusselaers. “In itself, an hour of coffee break a day is a lot. But there is less chat in between. Colleagues don’t walk into each other’s offices to have a coffee chat.”
Fika may be a break, but it also makes people work more efficiently the rest of the time. That efficiency is central to everything the Swedes do. Also at meetings. While in Flanders they sometimes start too late and then last a long time, in Sweden this is out of the question. “The meetings are always perfectly timed,” says Brusselaers.
Because of this efficiency, Swedes usually get more done in fewer hours, Brusselaers has noticed, and international institutions are inclined to agree. Despite the fika breaks and the fact that overtime is only something that most Swedes know from hearsay (only 1 percent of employees actually do it), according to the OECD, productivity is as high as in other top European countries.
Swedes manage to have more time for themselves, their children, or for a fun hobby. Even the latter is part of Swedish corporate culture. Many companies offer their employees the opportunity to spend one hour a week on their own well-being, so to speak friskvårdstimme. A short walk is therefore perfect during working hours.
To further encourage these wellness activities, employees often receive a sum of 430 euros per year from their bosses, which they can spend tax-free on things such as fitness subscriptions, ski passes or horse riding lessons. Or a program to quit smoking. Because of those extras, coupled with a good one work-life balance, mentions the newspaper The Guardian the Swedish work culture’stunningly healthy‘.
Then we ignore the holidays that Swedes can take four weeks at a time in the summer – this is laid down by law – and parental leave. Each parent is entitled to 240 days. That is almost a year, a big difference from the 20 days that Flemish fathers get. In 1974, Sweden was the first country in the world to abolish gender-specific parental leave.
“Like the other Scandinavian countries, Sweden is still a guide country,” says labor economist Stijn Baert (UGent). “The human capital is better maintained than ours. This is not just about days off, but also about lifelong learning. In surveys we see that here only one in ten employees say that they have received training in the past month, compared to three in ten there.”
The Swedish approach yields good figures for the economy. 84 percent of the population between the ages of 20 and 64 are working there, compared to only 75.4 percent in our country. The percentage of ‘inactive’ – people who are completely outside the labor market – is also half lower than in Belgium – our figure is 20.9 percent. “Social security is more sustainable,” says Baert. “Because she rests on more shoulders.”
According to Baert, people are better cared for and stay at work longer. “With us, a career is like a sprint,” says Baert. “Once we work, we put in a lot of hours, but we also retire earlier. In Scandinavian countries we see that people have a much longer career and sometimes take a break. There it is more like a marathon.”
Another reason why Swedes last longer is because they start doing it more gradually. Young people who travel for a year at the age of eighteen before starting their studies are certainly not rare. Swedes are also more flexible during their career; they switch between jobs a little more. “Here, specialists complete their training around the age of thirty,” says Brusselaers. “No one would be surprised if a doctor decided to start a specialization at the age of forty.”
According to Brusselaers, some Swedish specialists therefore have less experience than their Flemish colleagues. But beyond that, doctors take advantage of the work-life balance. “Evening consultations do not take place,” says the epidemiologist. “But if people need an appointment, they can do so during working hours.”
Brusselaers has worked in Sweden for eight years and has reaped the benefits of the work culture. But is it also a paradise to work? “The winter period is very tough,” she says. “When you go home at four o’clock it is really pitch black. I found that difficult. But we can still learn something from this work balance.”