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Why do the Swedes take such long summer holidays?

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Why do the Swedes take such long summer holidays?
Many Swedish offices empty for several weeks over summer. Photo: Gustav Sjöholm/TT
12:05 CEST+02:00
Summer in Sweden means workplaces emptying for weeks on end and a flood of 'out of office' replies from colleagues and clients taking lengthy vacations. But have you ever wondered exactly how the four-week summer holiday became so entrenched in Swedish society? The Local looks into the historical and cultural background of the tradition.

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The long summer holidays have their roots in the 19th century, when Sweden had just undergone a rapid period of industrialization.

There was huge investment in infrastructure; railways in particular. Large engineering companies including Ericsson and SKF were established, while an abundance of resources such as copper and iron ore meant that refining and exporting metals accounted for a large part of the economy. 

At the same time as Sweden shifted from a poor, agricultural country to a richer, urbanized one, workers began to organize. The first national trade union, for typographers, was launched in 1886, and before the turn of the century, the majority of unions were part of a single central organization: the Swedish Trade Union Confederation or LO.

The influence of the trade unions grew, and they had significant bargaining power in campaigning for good working conditions.

In the early 20th century, unions negotiated with many of Sweden's industrial companies to agree on a specific period when factories would shut down. This was the 'industrisemester', literally 'industry holiday', a three- to four-week period in July when factories and other workplaces would halt production entirely, giving employees a break.

The use of 'semester' meaning 'holiday' might confuse speakers of English or the European languages in which this refers to a term of education. In Latin, 'semestris' meant 'six-month', coming from ‘sex’ (six) and ‘mensis’ (month, from the word for moon). It entered English and French through German as a word for a university or school term, as these were split into two units within a year. In Swedish, though, 'semester' has been used since the 18th century to refer to holidays, originally linked specifically to army officers, who had the right to a certain amount of vacation.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about annual leave in Sweden

Photo:Henrik Holmberg / TT

It is generally taken for granted by most Swedes that a good work-life balance and proper breaks leads to happier, healthier workers and higher productivity, and in fact the right to holiday is enshrined in law.

In 1938, Sweden passed its Annual Leave Act (Semesterlagen) introducing a legal right to vacation for all employees. At the time, this was set at two weeks, and it has since been adapted and extended. The current version was introduced in the 1970s and offers full-time employees five weeks' vacation. 

Many workplaces go above and beyond this legal minimum by offering extra vacation days, and some trade unions add extra perks in their agreements with employers (kollektivavtal) meaning that employees may get extra days once they're over 40, for example, or in other specific circumstances.

These days, some industrial companies still close down during mid-summer, including Scania and Nobia for example. It's also common to see small, local cafes, restaurants and other businesses shut up shop for the traditional holiday period, from mid-July onwards and usually corresponding to weeks 28-31 or 29-32. 

But it's not always the case. Changes to production methods mean companies can be more flexible with holiday without needing to halt an entire production line, while the need to keep up with international colleagues, clients, and competitors has led others to stay open through the year.

Even in offices that don't shut down fully over summer, this is still the time of year that most employees will take their break, largely to coincide with school and preschool summer holidays for employees with young families. Last year, around half of workers in Sweden took their holiday in July, according to software company Visma.

Under Swedish law, an employer cannot refuse workers the chance to take four weeks off between May and September, apart from in certain special circumstances, such as if summer is the peak business time for the company. However, it's usually the employer who has the final say on holiday dates, and they may ask you to take your break at a time that best suits the company.

This means that although you can't be forced to forego a summer break altogether, it may happen that you're told to take vacation at a certain point between May and September in order to coordinate with others at your workplace, even if you would have preferred to take all your holiday at another time.

People walk down a pedestrianized street in Stockholm. Photo: Janerik Henriksson / TT

The way that holiday is worked out differs from company to company. If the workplace has a collective agreement, there will be a negotiation involving the relevant trade union on how summer holiday will be divided. In the absence of a collective agreement and/or union affiliation, it's up to the company. Some managers split the summer into different holiday periods, with different employees taking different weeks off so that the business runs at a reduced capacity throughout that time. Others will have a less formal process, taking into account everyone's holiday preferences before putting together a schedule.

It might seem odd to be told when you need to take holiday, particularly if you're from a country with no mandatory paid vacation, such as the USA. But the Swedish approach to summer holiday has several clear benefits. If you’re job-hunting, it can be an excellent time to approach potential employers, who might struggle to find seasonal cover while their staff is away. And for those who have already landed a full-time job, it's a chance to either explore Sweden or travel further afield.

Another bonus of Swedish holiday is that you actually get paid slightly more when you're on vacation.

Almost all workers in Sweden are entitled to 'holiday pay', called semesterlön or semestertillägg, an additional amount on top of your normal pay during paid holiday. Depending on your employment contract, this might be paid out in a lump sum once a year or added on to your monthly payslip, usually the month after you take the holiday.

Workers on a variable salary, for example if you are paid by the hour, get 12 percent of their entire annual salary in holiday pay (semesterlön) once a year, a policy which was introduced to ensure this kind of employee was still able to take paid vacation. The 'semestertillägg' was introduced for workers on a fixed annual salary, so that they weren't disadvantaged by the rule. This is typically equivalent to around 0.8 percent of your monthly salary per vacation day taken, though the exact amount differs depending on collective agreements and individual employment contracts.

Whenever you take your holiday, you'll get this extra bonus. So the only decision is whether to make like a Swede and take all your holiday in summer, or work through the quieter summer season and take a break in the colder months instead.

 

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