Why Danes Are Happier at Work Than Americans

Workers in Copenhagen have a better balance between life and work. (Photo: Devteev/Shutterstock.com)

Americans are starting to question our country's famous work ethic, which has long included late nights, working on weekends, and eschewing vacations — a real "tough guy" approach to getting the job done. But while we continue to put in that extra time, a couple of interesting stats have forced us to take another look at those ideals. First, most people in most other industrialized countries work (far) fewer hours while matching — and sometimes exceeding — our productivity levels in the United States. Second, there are a slew of other countries in the world where the people are happier, both at home and a work, than we are.

The combination of being happier, and working less is pretty compelling, and no country exemplifies that as well as the Danish people, who not only rank as happiest in the world, but who work an average of 1,540 hours per year compared to Americans' 1,790 hours. With six weeks of vacation a year and generous family-leave policies, who wouldn't be happier?

But being happy at your job is about more than simply working less. Danes are so vigorously focused on happiness at work that they even have a word for it: arbejdsglæde. So how do they do it? No, it's not all foosball tables in the breakroom and free food (and in fact it has nothing to do with those niceties that are so popular at tech companies stateside). It includes both society-wide programs and smart management systems.

Less overt boss power: I cannot think of one person I know who likes being told what to do, though most of us appreciate consistent and considerate leadership. In Denmark, boss-employee orders are seen more as suggestions, and the "power distance" is lower. What is this metric? According to this Fast Company report by a Danish business expert, "A high power distance means that bosses are undisputed kings whose every word is law. U.S. workplaces have a power distance of 40 while Danish workplaces — with a score of 18 — have the lowest power distance in the world." So bosses are less able to abuse their power and employees feel more empowered. I can see where that would make people happier, can't you?

Good unemployment: In Denmark, employees get 90 percent of their salary for two years following a job loss, which sounds like great news for workers, but not just because they won't be subject to financial ruin if they lose their jobs. It also means that quitting your job (or being fired from one) and finding a new one is a lot less risky, and means fewer people are locked into jobs they hate. People in jobs they don't like not only bring productivity down for themselves, but can affect a whole team, so this is one area where giving people freedom and mobility is better for individuals and companies too.

Consistent upgrades in training and education: Built into the Danish government, union and company policies is ongoing training to pick up new skills and develop others. This investment in the worker keeps people challenged and up-to-date on new technologies, which can make workers more productive in less time. And it also keeps older workers from being rendered less useful; if your older workers know how to use technology as well as younger ones, yet also have the benefit of experience, that can't help but be good for the bottom line, as well as worker morale.

Denmark weathered the last economic crisis well, and currently has a low unemployment rate of about 5.4 percent, so clearly these smart, worker-first benefits are keeping people on the job, not leading to slackerism. And they're happier at those jobs to boot.