Gym classes, massages, mood boosting hobbies; it’s no secret that staying “well” can be prohibitively expensive. But not necessarily in Sweden, where many employers offer their workers a so-called “wellness allowance”: up to 5,000 SEK (approximately £372) tax-free a year to spend on pre-approved wellbeing-based activities.
First introduced in 1988, the allowance can be used for endeavours ranging from horseback riding to smoking cessation programmes, and Swedish employers have stuck with it, with many increasing their offering over the years. But the allowance, it turns out, is just the tip of Sweden’s workplace wellbeing iceberg. In fact, when it comes to ideal countries to be employed in, Sweden sets the pace.
“It’s pretty amazing,” says Maja Wessel, acting CEO of Region Stockholm’s Patient Advisory Committee (Patientnämnden) of the wellness allowance. Her organisation was awarded Sweden’s best small workplace by Great Place to Work earlier this year and came third in their European final. She spends her allowance on a gym membership, but says that yoga classes and ski passes are also popular choices. Many Swedish employers also offer a weekly friskvårdstimme or “wellness hour” – 60 minutes a week to look after their wellbeing during paid working hours.
Perhaps the best-known of Sweden’s enviable workplace practices is the tradition of fika (derived from the Swedish word for coffee, kaffe), which involves stepping away from your desk to share coffee and cake or pastries with colleagues. Unlike in other countries, where a coffee run may more commonly be carried out by one person, or used to facilitate a work meeting, in Sweden the focus tends to be on taking a collective break. “It’s not a time to talk about work – it’s a pause from work, to talk about other things,” says Lotta Henrysson, head of HR at Vattenfall Sweden, a state-owned energy company. “Some people are strict with it: every morning at 9am and every afternoon at 4pm. That’s kind of the old culture, I would say – how it was 20 years ago. Now, it can also be more ad hoc.” Vattenfall’s offices have seating areas on every floor to make it easy for people to move away from their desks and “change the environment” during fika breaks.
I join Wessel for fika on a relatively quiet Friday afternoon – it’s All Saints’ Eve, which is traditionally a partial non-working day in Sweden, and as you might expect, the workforce makes the most of the time off. Her team fika in what they call “the green room” – a calm and comfortable plant-filled space adjacent to the office’s workstations. “It’s a great time to get to know each other, to unwind,” she tells me over a plate of lussekatter (saffron buns), kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) and a glass of julmust – a soft drink that’s popular in Sweden at Christmas time – this is their first one of the year. “During the pandemic, we had fika on Microsoft Teams instead,” adds Catharina Barreus, an administrator at the company, who also joins us. “It taught us that there were other ways to fika.”
The department – several floors up in a shared building and comprising of just 25 employees – is relatively nondescript; there are none of the beanbags or sleep pods or other facilities so often attributed to desirable and productive workplace environments. The rows of desks are more reminiscent of a typical call-centre set up, with private side-offices for more confidential conversations.
Yet the team are keenly aware of the importance of socialising together. “We know that we have to do things together and be friends, or at least friendly with each other, to maintain a positive workplace culture,” says Wessel, adding that they regularly meet outside working hours, too. Away from the green room, there is also an open-plan kitchen space with tea and coffee facilities, as well as fresh fruit baskets. The fika breaks last just 15-20 minutes – how do they keep them concise, even when colleagues are evidently keen to catch-up? “Everyone is very aware [of the time],” says Wessel. “It’s a stressful environment, everyone has stuff to do.”
The country’s tourist board website claims that fika is “so ingrained in the Swedish psyche… that some companies add a clause to contracts stating that employees are entitled to fika breaks.” There is evidence to suggest that taking regular breaks is key to boosting productivity; even though only 1% of Swedish employees work overtime, they are no less productive than those in other countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The lack of overtime is also significant. Swedes value work-life balance and, unless the job necessitates it, will avoid letting professional commitments seep into their personal lives. Most employers also offer flexible work hours. “We focus on what is to be delivered and not just on how long it takes,” says Hans Celander, head of competence at Trafikverket, the Swedish Transport Administration. “Maybe you work a little longer today and shorter tomorrow, but the work gets done.” Trust, he says, is key – a sentiment echoed by Barreus. “You do what you’re supposed to do,” she says. “No one is going to bother you about how you do it.”
The ring-fencing of personal time is perhaps felt most keenly by outsiders. Natasha, who moved from Britain to Sweden in 2019 to work as marketing director for a fashion brand, says it was “completely normal” for the entire office to be entirely empty by 5pm most days.
“When I first joined the business, I would try to book meetings into people’s diaries and at some point, someone said: ‘Natasha, you can’t book meetings at lunchtime because people won’t come!’ They take all of that stuff really seriously, as opposed to in the UK, where we don’t mind trampling over home-lives and lunchtimes. It forces you to be a bit more considerate and intentional about boundaries. Plus, protecting that time makes work more efficient and more enjoyable.”
It will come as little surprise, then, to learn that the Swedes are also generous with their holiday allowances: the minimum annual leave entitlement for full-time employees is 25 days a year (the UK and EU standard is 20 days) – plus an extra nine public holidays, bringing the total to 34 (although some European countries offer even more).
“You have the legal right to take off four weeks in a row,” says Wessel, citing the Swedish Annual Leave Act. “It’s very important, especially for us – we have this terrible weather, so come summer it’s good to be able to take a long holiday during that time. It’s something I would really miss if I didn’t have it.”
In workplaces where such long absences are possible, many employees opt to take the whole of July off, with offices either closed entirely or operating with a skeleton staff, much as they might over Christmas. “It puts the person at the centre, rather than putting work at the centre,” says Natasha. “People tend to spend that time with their families.”
While a holiday bonus might sound too good to be true, it also pays to take holiday in Sweden – employees receive an additional 12% of their gross salary, plus 0.43% of their monthly salary, every time they take annual leave.
The Swedish concept of “flat hierarchies” may also be something that is felt more acutely by non-natives. Egalitarianism is integral to the way in which many Swedish businesses operate; job titles are rarely used and decisions are often made by consensus. “Everyone’s included in the conversation at least, regardless of your level [of seniority],” says Sarah, a British expat who has been working in Sweden for five years, although she believes that management at her workplace usually still have the final say.
The Swedish Institute, a public agency that builds interest and trust in Sweden around the world, argues that taking a collective approach to decision-making – particularly regarding central wage bargaining with trade unions – has resulted in a “predominantly peaceful relationship between employers and employees”. Managers and bosses will usually socialise and fika with less senior members of staff, too.
“We are not as hierarchical as other countries can be,” confirms Celander. “We think it is important to let everyone have a say. If everyone knows where you are going and why, you can focus on the delivery.”
Steinunn Ásgeirsdóttir, who was a director at Patientnämnden, says it is the combination of these elements that creates an innovative and creative – not to mention covetable – workplace culture in Sweden. “It’s not only about the physical work environment, but the social and psychological environment,” she says. “It’s all connected: the self-leadership, productivity, knowledge sharing, innovation, respect for each other, trust, and encouraging each other.”
Further emphasis is placed on the importance of work-life balance through progressive parental leave policies: in 1974, Sweden became the first country in the world to do away with gender-specific parental leave, and currently offers a total of 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted – almost two years of working days in total. Both parents are entitled to 240 days leave, with 90 of those days reserved as a minimum for each parent.
Swedish parents also have the legal right to take time off work to look after a child if they get sick. While plenty of employers may be relatively understanding when it comes to emergency childcare, in Sweden it is entrenched in law under a policy known as Vård av Barn [care of children] – or “vab”, for short. The state picks up 80% of a parent’s salary, allowing for 120 days a year, per child, until the age of 12. And it’s not just the parents who benefit: other family members, friends or neighbours who act as carers for the children are also entitled to vab compensation. In addition, parents are entitled to reduce their working hours (by up to 25%) until their child turns eight years old.
There are, of course, some downsides to the seemingly utopian culture cultivated in Swedish workplaces. Gender roles remain relatively entrenched, and Sweden still sees more men returning to work before their (female) partners.. Additionally, Sweden’s democratic decision-making processes within the workplace can mean change takes place very slowly, or not at all – something which is liable to cause particular frustration to those who come from workplaces where snappy decision-making is highly valued.
Officially, Sweden does not have a government-mandated minimum wage and many of the attractive employment benefits, such as the wellness allowance, do not apply to those working in temporary positions or on short-term contracts. Even those who do qualify do not always take advantage of the allowance.
“We had hoped that more of our employees would actually use it – often, the people who use it are the people who would have joined a health club anyway,” says Henrysson. “Also, we see that many people don’t start using it until late in the year – people think: ‘Oh my God, I forgot!’ – and you can spend it all at once if you want to.”
Systemic inequality also means that unemployment is growing in Sweden – and so an increasing number of people do not benefit from the country’s attractive workplace culture at all; Sweden’s overall unemployment rate is one of the highest in Europe, at 7%. Since 2015 it has taken in far more migrants than any other EU country (relative to its population size) but many have difficulty finding permanent employment: in 2017, foreigners were three times more likely to be jobless than local people. Without a job, not only is a significant proportion of the population at a financial disadvantage, but they are also without considerable workplace benefits, creating something of a two-tiered society.
But perhaps the biggest downside to the Swedish workplace culture, at least for the rest of us, is that it’s surprisingly difficult to replicate. For all its advantages, the Swedish approach doesn’t always seem to translate to other countries, especially those outside the Nordic region. When I ask the Patientnämnden team what the secret is, Barreus tells me simply that she and her colleagues “take the time to really see each other, to see the person in front of you; we care about each other.” I can imagine that’s not easy to enforce. And while some of what makes working in Sweden so appealing is enshrined in law, much of it lies in the fostering of strong working relationships, a genuine drive for job satisfaction – and, perhaps above all, the recognition that employees have lives outside the office. As Henrysson puts it, Swedish workplaces appear alluring because, “you should not only live to work.”