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What we can learn from the Danes — Grady Newsource

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Danish work culture is known for its emphasis on work-life balance, resulting in a healthy relationship with work that doesn’t necessarily sacrifice quality.

This presents a stark contrast to “hustle culture,” a popular sentiment in the United States where the value of a worker is measured by whether they go the extra mile in pursuit of their professional goals. One facet of hustle culture involves working long hours, even when it means neglecting one’s health. 

Instead of perpetuating a competitive work environment and climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, Danish work culture emphasizes egalitarianism, as well as the importance of the individual worker and their rights.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: Many American workplaces emphasize working hard and going the extra mile to accomplish one’s goals, but this approach can often lead to burnout and overworking oneself. The Danes prioritize work-life balance, so what can Americans learn from their approach?   

Egalitarianism

In order to understand Denmark’s approach to work, it is important to consider their emphasis on egalitarianism, said Kay Xander Mellish, a writer and keynote speaker who grew up in the United States and has been living in Denmark for 10 years. Mellish offers education and coaching on the cultural differences between Denmark and other countries, including the nuances of Denmark’s work culture. 

“The idea is that if you’re very good at school, you should stop and help your neighbor who’s struggling, not kind of soar ahead,” Mellish said. “On the other hand, you know, people don’t crash to Earth. We don’t have a lot of homeless people. So it’s like a band. You don’t go too high, but you don’t go too low.”

As a result, there is no “mythic idea of working your way up,” and Denmark’s work culture differs from that of America in the way that it is less competitive, Mellish said. 

“The U.S. system encourages excellence in a way that the Danish doesn’t,” Mellish said. “On the other hand, it’s exhausting,” Mellish said.

Work-Life Balance

Compared to other OECD countries, Denmark ranks low in terms of hours worked and high in terms of time spent on leisure. (Graphics/Alyssa Ginn)

Copenhagen ranks fifth worldwide when it comes to work-life balance according to a 2022 study by Kisi. The report ranks cities in terms of their ability to promote work-life balance based on data related to work intensity, institutional support, legislation and liveability. 

“Danish working culture puts the employees’ needs at least to the equal of the customer, if not more, so people here work thirty seven and a half hours a week and then they go home,” Mellish said.

Natalia Pfeifer works at DIS: Study abroad Scandinavia where she acts as a point of contact for students to address any problems they have while studying abroad. Pfiefer describes her day-to-day experience at work as varied when it comes to how busy she is, but in general her schedule is flexible and accounts for anything that may come up.

“Sometimes if I have to miss a shift, I can take a vacation day or swap with somebody else, so they can pick up the hours that I can’t work and then oftentimes we’ll kind of do a trade, so then I’ll take somebody else’s shift,” Pfeifer said. “So I think the work-life balance here is super good.”

Christian Bjørnskov, a professor of economics at Aarhus University, argues that while some workers may exploit Denmark’s flexible approach to work, the economic benefits of the system outweigh the costs.

“Even though it might mean that some people don’t work that much, really, there are these benefits in terms of flexibility and learning that are quite unique,” Bjørnskov said.

Just as employees are flexible when it comes to working hours, they are more trusted by their bosses and as a result, show more initiative, Bjørnskov said.

“Ordinary workers both show more initiative but also have much more freedom to do things slightly differently, and to suggest different ways of doing things, because they’re allowed to do so,” Bjørnskov said. 

On the other side of the story, some still naturally struggle to achieve this balance. Olivia Reid Pederson, manager of Riccos Kaffebar at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, says that she personally struggles with having a healthy work-life balance and “not bringing work home.” Even so, she says this is something she wants to improve at and recognizes its importance.

“No matter what you do, you’re gonna get stressed at some point,” Pederson said. “So it’s just like, make time for yourself where you’re just like ‘I’m not going to think about work or anything, I’m just going to, you know, be me.’ I think that’s really important and healthy for both body and mind.”

Mellish says that Danish workers prioritize work life balance because what’s most important to them isn’t money or prestige that may come from working long hours and climbing the corporate ladder, but time.

“They work to live, they don’t live to work,” Mellish said.

Listen to Kay Xander Mellish discuss Danish work-life balance here:

Alyssa Ginn is a senior in journalism and economics.