Thursday, January 19, 2012

Swedes – Hard at work or hardly working?

It's a sentiment I hear a lot from people who have just moved to Sweden, or gotten their first Swedish job – 'Between the coffee breaks, the meetings, and leaving by 5 every day, how does anything get done?'

And that is when they put it nicely. Other words like lazy, uninterested, and slow have come up in certain conversations with unhappy expats.

So what's the deal? Is Sweden a country of not-so-hard workers? Is that why the hospitals close for the summer? Why most pharmacies shut down by 6 (Duane Reade where ARE you)? Even some companies shut down their entire production line for weeks due to employee vacations?

As someone who is very not-a-type-A personality, even I struggle with the 'take it easy – you shouldn't stress' attitude. My retired neighbor always yells at me to 'slow down' as I am racing out the door to meet a client. I would LOVE to slow down, but if I am meeting with a Senior Manager at a large company, I don't want to be late.

So what is the truth about the situation? Are Swedes lazy? Is work just a way to pass the time before they get to hang out at home?

Most Swedes will tell you they are far more effective during the 8 hours they are at work than any American could possibly be after 10 hours at the office. No one could possibly work well on little sleep, being stuck in a cubicle all day, and working non-stop.

Sometimes I have a hard time swallowing this argument. I know a lot of people that work damn hard and get a lot done in their 10 – 12 hour workdays. But I do wonder if these companies might benefit more if people did slow down and go home at 5, even if the work wasn't done. Happy, healthy employees who like the company they work for are an asset for the long-term.

But considering the amount of flack unionized automakers are getting in the current economic climate, workers with padded benefits like longer vacations, dental plans and great health insurance, I don't think we will see a change there soon.

On the other side of things, more and more Swedish white collar workers are taking their jobs home with them, answering emails and making phone calls after hours, catching up while on the commute to work. Things are changing, you just have to look for the subtleties. But I really hope Sweden doesn't become much more like America when it comes to work habits.

I have gotten a bit spoiled. I mean, really, if you had a choice, which one would you opt for, non-stop work and little time for a life or a comfortable work-life balance?


  1. Norwegian companies would favor the swede in a line up of applicants anytime, because the swedes are known as hard working, never give up kinda guys. And in the rest Europe (I've heard) we're considered extremely organised and efficient.
    So yes, lazy when it comes to hours put in, but hard working when it comes to getting stuff done I guess... Interesting non the less.

  2. I think they know how to balance. Americans work hard and party hard, Swedes seems relaxed on both fronts. They know how and when to take breaks, they know the importance of it. As long as the job gets done, I don't think its a bad thing. When I go into a store I haven't encountered the average American worker who slowly gets to you after finishing a meaningless and irrelevant conversation with a co worker while avoiding eye contact with you to avoid work. Its funny that you mention about running out of the house because the one thing that Swedes are is Punctual. Being late is a bad offense as far as I have been told, read, and experienced. I think that mentality alone should show for some part of work ethics. Good discussion topic and observant post!

    Megalagom -

  3. Interesting information and good news, since I'm planning to move to Sweden in a few years. Thanks.

  4. My Swedish husband has mostly worked in the US and has worked here in Sweden for 1.5 years now. He's noticed a big difference, as you mentioned, and sometimes it drives him nuts, and sometimes he's glad about all his pappaledighet. He gets irritated with the people that have to take time off because they are "stressed" because then HE or somebody else has to fill in for them, and he is irritated about people that are just not good at their job but can't be fired. He likes that he doesn't HAVE to stay past 5 if something is broken, but his American work ethic means he does, anyway. I'll have to ask him if he thinks he is more/less productive, but he's the kind of person that gets a lot done fast anyway.

  5. Interesting! As have been working both in Sweden and in the US I definitely see the difference in work culture. For me one of the most interesting questions is actually why sooo MANY of the Swedes are getting "Burnt-out" ("utbrända") meaning sick from stress, because of their jobs while I've almost never heard that word here in USA?? IS it simply because here in USA people can't afford to be to stressed since they will then get fired? So they just work until they simply get so sick they can't anymore? Or is it because the work is different? The reason I find this particular question interesting is that Swedes compared to Americans, work zoo LITTLE in terms of hours and days per year. Here there are no such things as "Vab" and there is hardly any parental leave at all. In NYC it's 6 weeks (!!) for the mom and maybe a day or two for the dad if any. People have around 2 weeks of vacation per year (and many times they don't even take that) so how come people aren't more stressed out here than in Sweden??
    I haven't really found any good answer of that yet, but the only explanation I could think of might be that a lot of Swedes have more responsibilities at work wince most places have more flat organizations than here. Meaning that you should answer for much more. Here the work is more often more "defined" and not as "broad". But I don't know if that is the only answer?? Just find it very interesting. And am still trying to learn more about the American work culture. :-)

  6. Actually I can´t agree with you on this one. There are probably "lazy" and hard working people both here and in the US of course. Now I have only worked in Alabama at one place and my husband worked at two different places in Alabama but I would say that in my opinion people generally work a lot harder in Sweden. Sure people spend a lot of time at work in the US and don´t have much vacation but spending time at the office is not the same as working. I was actually shocked when I started working here in Sweden after having worked for four years in Alabama. It was so much harder, tougher and more stressful here. In Alabama many people would do "other things" at work that were not work related besides work of course. So in my experience work life is harder in Sweden than in the US.
    Also I guess that the long dark winters here make it necessary for people to have a longer vacation during summer. That is the one way to cope with this awful climate.
    Take Care. I love all the interesting subjects you post on your blog :-)

  7. @Cecilia - Good point, I've heard that too, that compared to the Norwegians or Danes, Swedes are the work horses - how do they get anything done? :)

    @anon - hah, I'm way too swedified, obviously! I should be fashionably late, I guess! Not only that, if I am early, sometimes I wait outside - I have become ONE OF THEM!

    @missjay - thanks for reading

    @ antropologa - interesting, I guess it is nice to have the option to leave, even if you can't actually make it out the door - my Swede is the same way - so maybe that is the key?

    @saltistjejen - I've wondered about that, too. What about all the burnout! One summer I only took 2 weeks off, so I could save up my vacation time, and my Swedish FIL gave me a long lecture on how I needed to be careful or I would just make myself sick. I didn't really know what to say.

    @Desiree - fair enough, that is really something i have wondered about. I think the problem is way to many of my friends are high powered Manhattanites - so if they are lawyers they have to bill 8 hours a day, which means they need to be working on something for 8 hours, but all the extra stuff isn't included, so it was hard for them to leave in less than 10 hours. But I also wonder how effective you can be if you are working 10 hours in a row, over a long time - I think Americans like to talk about how hard they work - that it is abit of high status to be needed at work -but don't know if that is actually how hard they work - you know like guys who spend way too much time talking about how big things are... ;)

  8. I think there is definitely a difference, but it extends beyond the Swedish boarders. I think in general Europeans are more relaxed. The Czechs, who I love, are super lazy workers. Sweden was a nice middle balance. They are effective, but also save time to enjoy life. That is important.

    Fabulous post, as soon as I find some work in Sweden I'm sure I will be able to comment more :D

  9. Just saw Desiree's comment here and it's interesting to see that it's such a big difference depending on where people work. Of course it's differences depending on type of work to, I'm sure. But I get the feeling that for scientific work at least here in NYC people work a LOT and HRAD. Competition is very tough to. The same goes for a lot of people working here in other type of corporate business as well. Far more than in Sweden. But most of all I think the difference comes when you have children. Here are no such things as VAB for example (as you write about above this post) and almost no parental leave at all. Little vacation to so I still haven't really figured out how people with "real jobs" here do their family business...?? The good thing with academic science is that you are mostly very free and set your own schedule which has helped us during E's sick days etc... With no family around and not a loot of money for paying nannies to chip in while the kid is sick or there is a snow-day it would have been very tough to manage having kids and work as much as most people need to do here.

  10. I've sent you an award. And linked to your blog. Hope that was ok?!?

  11. I find the 1 month summer vacations and 1 month normal vacations plus all the holidays laughable. Swedish workers are a bunch of spoiled cry babies. It seems that all that lack of stress and relaxation which should provide a long life is counterbalanced with smoking and drinking. I manage large global projects and the swedes are always weeks to a month behind the Americans on everything. It's a shame that our company management doesn't see all the unproductive social strife this causes. They've somewhat responded by letting the babies quit and not replacing them, so we win by a battle of attrition. Now the swedes are having bigger battles with the massive immigrant populations rioting. Most of Europe is in a similar mess, with the years of the laid back something for nothing attitude and the inability to evolve.

    In summary, yes they are lazy. I have had to teach myself to relax and appreciate my family time even more. I leave early compared to most, but that's because I've learned over the years that any employer will suck as much out of any worker, provided they are willing to give - and take any employer will gladly do. The workers councils of Europe is just another term for union. So what you really have is a bunch of countries which are 100% unionized versus free markets.

  12. It depends on where you look at the working mass. I have had around 3 days of consecutive vacation in the last 3 years. I work up to 18 hours a day, I work hard those hours and I'm a Swede.

    There's hard workers and lazy workers in all countries and fields of work, doesn't mean the general population consists of lazy workers :)

  13. I wish to work in Sweden and Im just 23 now working in the middle east and I am from India ...

  14. I want to visit Sweden kindly guide me

  15. Swedes are lazy, but it's no wonder that they are like that. Because if you think it through - Sweden has had quite easy history compared with other countries in Europe (now I mean all those countries where once communism or nazism existed, and these two ideologies taught people to work hard ). And yes, as somebody already said it's hilarious how many swedes are sick and have allergies and are utbrända hela tiden.

    They just aren't a working nationality.

  16. Note that working for Swedish companies outside of Sweden sucks - the home base shuts down in summer and everyone goes on a two month vacation while you keep grinding on. They come back in late summer and have no idea what's going on. Complete double standard.