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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

Why do the Swedes take such long summer holidays?

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.

Why do the Swedes take such long summer holidays?
Many Swedish offices empty for several weeks over summer. Photo: Gustav Sjöholm/TT

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

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, urbanised one, workers began to organise. 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 organisation: 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. It’s also common to see small, local cafés, 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. In 2017, 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 during the months of June, July or August, 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 during these months 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 pedestrianised 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. No, we’re not joking.

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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For members

SWEDISH TRADITIONS

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

As we gather for Midsummer, Sweden’s unofficial national day, here are seven things we should celebrate about the country that mark it out from the rest, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

With Sweden preparing to abandon its final vestiges of neutrality to become a Nato member, many are asking whether the country is losing the features that have helped to make it distinctively different as a nation. As we gather for Midsummer – Sweden’s unofficial national day – here are seven things we should celebrate about our home that mark the country out from the rest:

1. Midsummer itself

Imagine having a national holiday that has all the cultural significance of Christmas in Europe or Eid in the Muslim world, but which takes place outside when the sun never sets. That, in a nutshell, is Midsummer – all the anticipation, ornament and tradition of a big religious festival, but without the religion and on a day that goes on and on forever. The whole country moves outdoors and mingles with family, friends and neighbours. It’s like an annual street-party with added singing, dancing, garlands and games. 

Like many Swedish festivals, Midsummer has Christian roots, originating in celebrations to mark the birthday of St John the Baptist (June 24). But that date handily coincides with the summer solstice and a moment when nature is at its best. Christianity fought it out with paganism, and paganism won. The roots of Midsummer traditions are centuries old, but now the only worship that takes place is veneration of the season and exaltation at being alive. This, in theory at least, makes Midsummer a very inclusive festival that reaches over boundaries of creed, colour, age, class or political outlook.

Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se

So when you raise a glass of aquavit or skewer a chunk of pickled herring this Friday, you are doing more than enjoying the moment – you are celebrating an aspect of life that is quintessentially Swedish.

2. Support for working families 

When I describe to people back home in Britain the Swedish system of support for families with small children, they go green with envy. I am sure you know the stats already, but it’s worth writing them down, printing them out, nailing them to a piece of wood and making a small shrine in the corner of your living room. Then you should light a candle at the shrine every time you drop off your child at the well-funded kindergarten at 7am, or use one of the 120 days a year you get paid to be at home with the child when it is sick, or whenever you take one of the 480 days paid parental leave you get with each offspring. 

It is usually assumed that this is all a residue of Sweden’s leftist past, but that is only one side of the picture. It is true that Olof Palme, the country’s emblematic left-wing leader, talked in the 1970s about the need to “provide children with a stimulating and diversified environment” outside the home and strengthen “women’s ambitions to achieve equality in working life”. But in fact it was centre-right governments in the mid 70s and early 90s who really watered the seeds that Palme had sown. Sweden’s liberals saw gender inequality as inefficient and a brake on the economy. So the system of early years childcare and parental leave is actually a great Swedish national achievement.

The cost of childcare is capped in Sweden, so you’ll never pay more than a certain figure. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

3. A melting pot 

Love it or loath it (lots of Swedes do), immigration to Sweden is a fact of life. According to this year’s numbers, just over one-third of registered inhabitants of this country have some sort of foreign background, namely they were born abroad or born here to a foreign-born parent – although this also includes those born abroad to Swedish parents. A quarter of the population has a language other than Swedish or one of Sweden’s minority languages as their mother tongue – that’s the highest proportion of any country in the world. 

The transformation from a largely monocultural society has taken place at lightning speed, during barely three decades. One in five of today’s Swedes were born abroad, putting Sweden in 6th or 7th place in the world in terms of the proportion of foreign-born people after Luxembourg, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel. The proportion of non-white Swedes is at least 20% (30% among children and young people), which means that Sweden is in 3rd or 4th place in the western world after the USA, Australia, and possibly France.

Speaking personally, I find this hugely stimulating and exciting. Large-scale immigration comes with lots of challenges, but if Sweden can only get it right, it could be a beacon to the world. 

4. The hidden welfare state 

We all know about Sweden’s famous tax-payer funded welfare state, which is now rather frayed around the edges thanks to several decades of upheaval (with the possible exception of childcare, see above). But the country also has a set of large and powerful institutions that together constitute a “hidden” welfare state that even many Swedes are barely aware of. These are the organisations of the omställningssystemet, or transition system. 

A large majority of Swedish companies typically pay 0.3 per cent of their wage bill each year into the trygghetsfonder, or job security councils, which are run by the trade unions. TRR, one of the largest agencies, is backed by about 35,000 private sector companies with nearly 1 million employees – almost a quarter of the workforce. If you lose your job, a job security council will be there to give you counselling and training to help you get back into the workforce as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The transition system is an important part of explaining how Sweden’s economy maintains its global competitiveness. Helping the unemployed back into work, enabling them to improve their skills or recover from the stresses of redundancy, has a strong economic rationale. It makes it much easier for companies to downsize, restructure, and even close factories altogether. This is a great Swedish invention, and one that deserves much more recognition internationally. 

A customer buying spirits at Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

5. Systembolaget 

Love it or loath it (most Swedes love it), the state alcohol monopoly is a fact of life. In a country that has privatised almost everything that can’t be nailed down – including the postal service, the trains, telephones, schools, elderly care and aviation – Systembolaget sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, it is easier to find somewhere to play a round of golf in Sweden than a shop where you can buy a bottle of wine over the counter. 

It is paternalistic, moralistic, clumsy and exasperating. But Systembolaget is also a caring institution that represents society as a whole taking responsibility for citizens who are vulnerable to the ill-effects of a dangerous drug. If only the same principle was applied to gambling or pornography, for example, the world would be a better place. More broadly, Systembolaget is an embodiment of public service, an unfashionable but essential element of any functioning society. Hooray for Systembolaget, a great Swedish invention!

6. Gadgets and gizmos

If you have played a game on your telephone today, listened to music online, or video-called a friend, the chances are that you have used technology from a Swedish company. You can bid on a house via SMS, and credit a friend’s bank account instantly with your mobile phone. In the European Commission’s 2021 European Innovation Scoreboard, Sweden again ranked as the most innovative country in the EU, just as it has done ever since the index began in 2001.

The country has far more world-leading tech companies than it should in relation to its population. During this century, Stockholm has developed more billion-dollar tech companies, known as “unicorns”, than any other city in Europe. Successes include names such as Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Trustly, Mojang and King. Sweden is currently in a sweet spot for innovative enterprise, creating a fertile environment for people who want to turn ideas into stuff that can actually change the world. 

7. Work-life balance 

In Sweden, 25 days holiday a year are enshrined in law. That means anything less is illegal, irrespective of your age or what you do for a living. Many jobs come with more days off than the statutory minimum. And for many employees, neither weekends, bank holidays (röda dagar), Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s Eve are counted as part of your 25 days.

This is a great start for anyone seeking a healthy balance between work and home life. During their frequent days off, Swedes don’t sit around watching daytime TV. The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air life, is deeply embedded in Swedish culture and means spending time in the great outdoors for spiritual and physical wellbeing. The country boasts 25 organisations with 1.7 million members based on friluftsliv, while around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. This is closely linked to allemansrätten, the legal right of public access to anywhere in nature. 

But what about all that other crazy Swedish stuff?

I have tried to sum up those features of life in Sweden that are fundamental, structural, or so deeply engrained that one cannot imagine any major change taking place without some sort of major upheaval. But I am sure I have overlooked some things. Do please write to The Local with your suggestions for other reasons to celebrate Sweden and Swedishness here: [email protected] 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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