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Swedes: hard workers or hardly working?
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Swedes: hard workers or hardly working?

Published: 15 Dec 2008 12:48 GMT+01:00
Updated: 15 Dec 2008 12:48 GMT+01:00

Doug Lansky takes a look at how Swedish tradition, technology, sick leave, vacations, public holidays and a new management style mean many 'full-time' Swedish workers get 130 days off per year.

One hundred and thirty days. That's how much time each year many Swedish white-collar workers aren't working at the office according to a new calculation made by The Local and confirmed by Swedish academics. Sound like a lot? "It might even be some kind of world record," speculated Frederik Erixon, Swedish economist and Director of the European Centre of International Political Economy, a free-market think tank based in Brussels.

The Dublin-based Eurofound (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working, a statistics and advising organization established by the EU) already ranks Sweden's 44 days of public holidays combined with paid leave as the highest in Europe (the EU average is 34.4 days).

Sweden is second to last (just ahead of only France) in amount of working hours per year, but that doesn't include sick days, where Sweden leads France by 10 days in a 2005 study. Add those days to the mix, and Sweden becomes the new statistical leader for least hours worked per year.

Or perhaps Swedes are just pacing themselves. Statistically, they're more likely to retire later than workers in other EU countries, so the lifetime working hours of a Swede are certainly not the lowest. And if Swedes didn't spend so long getting university degrees (41% of Swedish graduates are over 30 years old when they enter the work force compared to the Statistical Central Bureau study's average of 16% for other EU countries) and began working earlier, they might well have Europe's most lifetime working hours.

The Local's new findings provide a staggering image of how little many Swedes are actually working in terms of effective hours at the office. And that's excluding parental leave (another category in which Sweden leads Europe).

The Eurofound survey states that Swedes work an average of 39.2 hours per week. That's just less than the 40-hour average of European nations. The French recorded the shortest work week in Europe (37.6 hours, or 19 minutes per day less than Swedes) and Bulgarians beat the Brits by two minutes a day for the longest work week (41.6 hours, or 29 minutes per day more than Swedes). But it's hard to say what these figures actually mean since they don't measure the official absences and "soft time" – the unproductive periods that have become a part of the work day for many.

Try bringing up the topic of not working with Swedes and you'll likely get a defiant glace – as if you're taking a stab at national pride or perhaps even making a personal accusation. But this time away from the office isn't about laziness. It's a combination of cultural, technological and managerial factors.

Part of this may have to do with a relatively new management trend in Sweden that seems to facilitate such free time. Catharina Nordlund, editor of Chef Magazine (a magazine for company bosses), recently published a piece on this new management style: ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment). The thinking behind it is that it's hard to police exactly what employees are doing at any given minute, and many employees want and need some flexibility to manage their personal life. So, the thinking goes, as long as the work gets done and the quality is high, better to trust the employees.

"Giving this trust is something Sweden is more willing to do than other countries," said Nordlund, "But a crucial part of this is follow ups - employees need to be confronted if their work is not done on time or is not acceptable." Sweden, according to Eurofound, ranks second in Europe, just behind Finland, in this practice.

Therein lies the rub. Swedes, for good reason, are not known for confrontation.

Fasil Mengistu, an employee at Sony Ericsson, hasn't seen much confrontation at the larger companies he's worked at, and provided one example: "If a project isn't finished when the boss walks in, there are plenty of excuses I've witnessed, such as a deadline that conflicts with another project. This allows the employee to save face and the boss typically backs down or maybe says, 'well, we need this as soon as possible.'"

Mr. Mengistu also echoed a common theme: that it can be different at smaller companies. "At one place where I've worked, the boss might walk in and say 'put your other work aside and get this project done by 4pm today.' And you do it."

There are, of course, many who work efficiently for full days plus overtime at companies of every size. And some companies don't have coffee breaks at all and make employees punch in and out with phone or computer systems. But at many Swedish companies, there's still a culture of accepted socializing, breaks, and informal flex-work that can be taken home. And a large component of this is tied to cell phones and the internet.

"Technology has blurred the border between work and private life," says Henrik Harr, former Editor-in-Chief at Universum, a business-survey and branding company. "You might take a work call on the subway on the way to the office or on your way home, but you are also taking private calls and emails and surfing the web at work. My experience is that it's not an even balance – the private time wins, and the reason is that the boss almost never calls you on it. And if you are confronted, you can always say that you were doing work from home the day before."

Working long hours doesn't necessarily guarantee productivity. But when people aren't at the office, for any reason, calls from potential clients can get missed, deals may get pushed back, decisions can get postponed. In a country based so much on consensus, this level of absenteeism is going to have a profound impact. If the company is set up specifically to manage employees working from home, this can turn out fine. But when it's an office work environment that allows work-from-home flexibility without special work-from-home management, quality working time can easily slip through the cracks.

Take klämdagar (literally ‘squeeze days’ – days squeezed between a public holiday and a weekend, for instance if the holiday falls on a Thursday or Tuesday). Some generous employers might give these as extra holidays, but most expect their employees to make them up. And many employers will allow this work to be done from home, where it's hard to verify if employees put in a full day (or any time), and are unlikely to confront them about it.

If you add up the days off and legitimate reasons not to work, the impact, especially here in Sweden, is significant.

Let's break it down. Using the information in the chart, Swedes with young children may be not be in the office for as many as 130, or 50 percent, of working days. Even if we estimate that everyone works an average of 30 minutes per day from home, that's still a total of 115 days, or 44% of working days. And this doesn't include courses, conferences, one-hour lunches, parental leave, extra smoking breaks, or training in kids at preschool, where it will also be difficult to get hold of these employees.

Whole days not at the office

Of 260 weekdays (Monday-Friday)...

25 days are vacation

12 days are public holidays

4 days are ‘klämdagar’ (days squeezed between holidays and weekend)

15 days are sick leave (source: Statistiska Centralbyrån, but OECD reports this as 25 days)

14 days are spent taking care of sick children (average 7 days per parent per small child-- Försäkringskassan)

3 days are spent at home waiting for large deliveries or meet house workers

2 days are spent at home because preschool is closed

1 day is spent away from the desk for an office party/holiday disguised as conference for tax purposes

Total full days not working: 76 days

Adding up the partial days

Ways a normal Swedish worker uses time when at the office:

15 days of fika, or coffee breaks (2 per day, 15 min each)

7 days of soft starts (20 min per day turning on computer, getting coffee, saying hello, checking email)

6 days of personal stuff (checking email, personal phone calls, sms, looking at Aftonbladet, etc -15 min per day)

10 days of leaving early to pick up kids at preschool (2 times per week x 1 hr each)

5 days of lunches that last more than 30 minutes (one-hour lunch 2 times per week)

2 days of leaving 30 minutes early on Friday afternoon or taking a longer fika

6 days of fitness training (1 hour per week)

2 days of catching up with colleagues before and after holidays ("How was Thailand?")

1 day of doctor/dentist/car repair consultations (5 times x 1.5 hrs each)

Total: 54 days

GRAND TOTAL: 130 Days

These figures don’t amount to a scientific study, but a mix of statistics and estimates. A full range of statistics was unavailable, so we asked around and tried to make educated choices. Last year, for example, there were six klämdager; next year there will be two. We used four. And again, this does not apply to all businesses, nor to all white collar workers. Some might take fewer coffee breaks, but take longer lunches or spend more time cyberslacking, and still others may never take breaks or waste any time.

Your response to this combination of official statistics and educated estimates might be similar to Employment Minister Sven Otto Littorin's, who asked his press secretary, "Can this be real?!"

"Seems realistic. It's hard to deny these figures," said Uppsala sociologist Roland Paulsen, who has been researching the topic of 'Empty Labour'. "In fact, for white collar work, these time estimates on personal activity at the office [20min + 15 min] are probably too low. We know from international surveys that between one and two hours per day goes to cyberslacking. But this doesn't apply to people working the checkout at the supermarket or waitressing or other such sectors."

One of these surveys was conducted by the website Salary.com. Their "Wasting Time Survey" found that employees spend up to 20% of the working day doing things like checking videos on YouTube, reading online newspapers and magazines, updating blogs, and using Facebook. If another hour per day were added to the list above to bring it up to the international average for cyberslacking, it would translate as 30 additional days off.

"One hundred and thirty days sounds more like a worst case scenario, not an average," said Karin Ekenger, an employment expert at Svenskt Näringsliv (the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise). “People are supposed to be making up missed time. Whether they do or not is up to the individual and their employer. Not every white collar worker gets this much time off."

Michael Allvin, a former researcher at Sweden's National Institute for Working Life who completed a report on Working without Boundaries and now works at Uppsala University, was also presented with the figures in this article. "The time amounts don't seem strange to me," he said. "What's really strange is that Sweden is one of the world's most secular countries, yet we have all these religion-inspired holidays. Even the more religious Italians go to work on many of those days."

Allvin's formal studies found that people are working more hours these days, but he admits there's a good deal the studies don't consider. "They don't reflect these mini-websurfing breaks that people take," he said.

All modern countries are affected by cyberslacking, but it's the total amount of time not working (and away from the office) that may hit Sweden hardest.

Why? Because of the willingness of so many managers to trust their employees combined with a reluctance to confront them. Because of adopting more modern time-off concepts like leaving early to pick up kids at daycare or working out during the day while still keeping the traditional coffee breaks. Because Sweden already has one of the world's highest number of holiday/paid-leave days. Because sick leave days in Sweden are the highest among industrialized countries. And because in this calculation, the international issue of cyberslacking only accounted for 13 days out of 130. It's the other, particularly Swedish things that account for more missed time.

What's more, Sweden's official six percent unemployment figure is "cooked." There are an additional four percent on sick leave and at least 10 percent on disability. So the actual number not working is closer to 20 percent. This according to Economist Stefan Fölster at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.

Yet despite all this – all the sick days, most combined holidays and paid vacation, second-fewest official work hours per year, most parental leave, most students finishing degrees over the age of 30, coffee breaks, a week of sick leave per small child for each parent and everything else -- Sweden still feels like a wealthy, developed nation. People dress nicely, drive nice cars, walk around with shopping bags on each arm. And it is a relatively wealthy nation. In terms of per capita GDP (the value of goods and services produced per person), Sweden ranks eighth in Europe.

Leading in time wasting, eighth in productivity. Not bad. Here's one possible explanation, according to Fölster: Swedes make up for the little amount they work on the job by investing tremendous amounts of time and money fixing up their homes. The added housing value doesn't contribute to GDP, but all the purchased materials do.

There's one more possible explanation: when Swedes are working, they're among the most efficient on the planet.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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