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Readers reveal: What’s it REALLY like working in Sweden?

Sweden has been relying on foreign workers to plug its skills shortage for years, and the country is known both for an enviable work-life balance and for bureaucracy that can complicate work permit applications. The Local asked our readers about their experiences as international workers in Sweden: the good, the bad, and what the country can do to improve.

Readers reveal: What's it REALLY like working in Sweden?
Did Swedish working life match up to your expectations? Photo: Susanne Walström/imagebank.sweden.se

“If I had known that it would be as hard as it was I don't think I would have moved here!” one freelancer in Stockholm said.

When we reached out to our readers, many said they had been surprised by some of the obstacles they faced in Sweden, ranging from suspected discrimination to long processing times and complex rules for work permits, or had more trouble than anticipated adjusting to the Swedish working culture.

Lots of readers had initially been drawn to Sweden thanks to the country's reputation for being open, transparent, and with a good work-life balance, as well as a booming tech industry. Many said that in these aspects, Swedish working life lived up to expectations.

'I got my company up and running in just a few days'

“Lots of innovation and funding. Excellent opportunities for small businesses. Good infrastructure, high-tech ethos and good work-life balance,” were some of the positive aspects listed by The Local reader Corey.

Others highlighted the fact Sweden offers the chance to take unpaid leave from work in order to set up a business, while another was able to study higher education courses in their spare time for free.

“The information, even in English, [about setting up a business] was very comprehensive. So I opened a company without the assistance of anyone really, and I got it up and running after a few days of registration with verksamt.se,” said one entrepreneur.

He added that the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) was helpful and understanding when it came to fixing some mistakes, and several others also praised the agency for the amount of English-language advice available. Others found Sweden a more welcoming environment for entrepreneurship.

READ ALSO: Ten things Sweden should do to make life better for international talent


Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

“I came as a student in 2015 and recently graduated in business administration,” said Mariam, who last year started her own business in Jönköping selling Asian food.

She was impressed not only by the support for business-owners, but also by the gender equality she saw in Sweden. “I grew up in a society where women usually stay at home looking after children and family unless she has a professional degree, like doctor or lawyers for example. Running a grocery store as a woman is very rare in Pakistan. Men and women have the same opportunities here, I think.”

A common theme in the responses was the high level of English spoken by most Swedes, which made it easy for international workers to set up businesses and work in Swedish companies.

However, others found that the Swedish language was often more important than they had been led to believe. Mariam in Jönköping, for example, said she had been unable to work with some suppliers until after she had studied Swedish, because they wanted to communicate with her in that language, and others recalled being asked to send a Swedish CV after applying to English-language job adverts, or being told Swedish fluency was required for a job working with English-speaking markets.

MY SWEDISH CAREER: Read interviews with inspirational internationals working in Sweden

'Fear of deportation'

One of the major issues facing international workers was the stress associated with work permit applications and extensions.

People without EU citizenship or a Swedish partner rely on these permits in order to work in Sweden, yet the processing time is lengthy and comes with additional conditions that don't apply to Swedish or EU workers. Not only that, but many skilled workers have been ordered to leave the country after a rule change in 2015 meant that even minor administrative errors – often made accidentally by the employer, rather than the employee – could lead to an application being rejected.

“If Migrationsverket does not change their views about international talent, I will not recommend any talented people to come Sweden and destroy their daily life with uncertainty,” said Safiqul in Eskilstuna, who cited “uncertainty on immigration procedures”, particularly after the 2015 changes, as the biggest problem for international workers.

Hussein in Lund had started up a business in Sweden, and praised the “supportive and innovative environment for entrepreneurs”. However, he had his work permit extension rejected by the Swedish Migration Agency after taking a salary cut for three months, which he had chosen to do as part of a startup phase and compensated for later on. He explained why such penalization was unfair, saying:

“I am a serial entrepreneur, part-owner and involved in the startup of two other high-tech companies in Lund. I created job opportunities, I paid taxes, me and my family are fully integrated with our surrounding society.”

One Stockholm employee said changes to the system were essential “so that people who have a work permit do not have to wake up every day with the fear 'I might get deported today'.”

READ ALSO: How Sweden's deportations of skilled workers are affecting internationals

How Sweden's deportations of skilled workers are affecting internationals
Photo: Photocreo/Depositphotos

'Long processing time and ridiculous rules'

In addition to the fear of having to leave the country and everything they have worked towards there, The Local's readers also pointed out additional restrictions faced by permit holders. The same Stockholm-based worker noted that those with work permits must comply with restrictions to their vacation time.

Lena in Malmö echoed these worries, citing her biggest concerns as “the length of processing your work permit, and ridiculous rules around it. For example, you don't get benefits while processing is ongoing, and you can't re-enter Sweden if you leave for vacation, a family emergency or business trip.”

Another worker, Gabriel, had chosen to stay in the same position rather than move to a new one when an opportunity came up at his company, explaining that he and his company decided they wanted “to avoid going through the ordeal of applying for a new permit”.

FOR MEMBERS:

'Non-Swedes fall under the radar'

Work permits are a major issue for anyone who moves to Sweden with a job offer, but for those already in the country (for example after moving to join a partner, for study, or after changing jobs), one big obstacle is discrimination or different treatment of non-native Swedes in the labour market.

One HR professional, who has not been able to find a job since she began applying in 2016, said she was “surprised” at how hard it had been to find work.

She had the impression that companies “rejected resumes on the basis of names, not giving people a chance to prove themselves”, while several other respondents also mentioned that they felt having a foreign name had a detrimental effect on their applications – something confirmed by several Swedish studies.

A Gothenburg-based worker said he had worked as a waiter and bus driver but was unable to find work in his own field. “My profession became obsolete. If you are not Swedish you fall under the radar,” he said.

“Foreigners are underestimated,” said another reader. “More than 18 years' experience, two Masters degrees, more than 200 job applications and not even a single interview. Give people with talent a chance to show what they have.”


Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

Ela in Stockholm had experienced this from the other side of the hiring process. “If you're not a developer, it's very hard to find a job. When I was hiring for a social media entry-level position I had really skilled and experienced people willing to downshift their career because they were looking for a job and unemployed for more than a year. They were professionals from UK, Spain, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, but they were totally ignored in the recruiting process,” she said. “A friend of mine got married and changed her name after two years in Sweden and she confessed it was ten times easier to get job interviews.”

And others had experienced more explicitly different treatment. “I don't appreciate being greeted by 'wow your English is very good', or 'where did you get that nice accent!' It's offensive for a black, educated, native-English-born person, yet it happens all the time!” said one reader.

One respondent who had lived in both Stockholm and Malmö said they were now leaving the country after they had found it “impossible to get a good job without crazy amount of connections”. They said they had working experience in over ten countries, and had been a high-earner overseas but “I could barely get an assistant job with an MBA degree.”

And Ben, an entrepreneur from India, said he had chosen to return home following a university exchange in Gothenburg. “Sweden is a good place to visit for a short time,” he said, and listed some of the issues he faced as “high cost of doing business, getting a personal number, huge paperwork”.

“A lot of the job postings are looking for developed professionals. Companies must stop looking for the finished product and try to discover talent. That means lowering requirements for positions and taking risks on individuals who are not 'culturally similar' and who are a little unorthodox. Then developing the talents of the individual by supporting their growth,” said a South African survey respondent, who said his impression was that Swedish job adverts typically requested higher levels of education than similar jobs in other countries.

READ ALSO: What to do if your work permit renewal is rejected

'Help workers integrate'

So how can this be improved? Many of our readers called on Swedish employers to do more to address unconscious bias and be more open to those with different backgrounds and international experience or education.

Bahram in Karlskrona noted that part of the onus was on newcomers: “We have to keep it in our minds that if we are looking for success we need to learn a new culture and business models. The time that you need to build your network to be able to be part of the society is not an easy time.”

But he added that companies and institutions can also assist with this, adding: “If they have smarter match-making programmes for job environments and universities teaches based on market needs then international talents could start [work] faster.”


Photo: Lena Granefelt/imagebank.sweden.se

“Having your developers hired from all over the world but the operational side being 90 percent Swedish is not enough. Yes, you can brag you're a multicultural environment with 20 nationalities, but your core business is run by Swedes. That's PR, not diversity,” commented another worker.

Fouad was one of many respondents who called on Swedish companies to work with internationals and help them to adapt, rather than expecting to hire fully integrated workers.

“Less talented Swedes are preferred over very talented foreigners who can't speak the language or know the culture. Make work culture more international. Accept non-assimilated talent with open arms and help them integrate instead of completely rejecting them,” he said.

'Amazing work-life balance'

For those who had spent some time working in Swedish companies, there were several surprises, both positive and negative.

Many were impressed by the level of workers' rights and the role of trade unions, with one respondent saying that their experience in Sweden showed them “that the working conditions I faced back home are indeed NOT normal”.

There was a lot of praise for Sweden's flatter hierarchies, gender equality and generous childcare practices, while several said their work-related stress was lower in Sweden than elsewhere. Metin in Markaryd was surprised that “people do not work overtime and on weekend”.


Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

David Johnson said: “Work-life balance is amazing. You hear about it, but to experience it really shows up the difference in values to working in the UK.”

But the more relaxed working culture also had its flipside.

“I perceive a lack of ambition: the so-called 'Jantelagen', no salary increases, everybody is equal, something that discourages ambitious people,” commented one worker.

Christin noted: “Germans are very blunt with feedback and say when we are not satisfied with the work of a colleague or how someone behaves. Here it is quite hard to get the honest opinion of someone; this is true both for negative and positive feedback. Thus it is quite hard to understand if you are appreciated or not, which is sad because it does not give much room for discussion and understanding from both sides.”

FOR MEMBERS:

'Introduce more benefits for high-earners'

One employee in Gothenburg said: “Sweden is undoubtedly in the forefront when it comes to work and life balance but has a huge room of improvement when it comes to no-wage benefits. In other countries companies provide free lunch, transportation, higher bonus systems, an extra salary in December and so on.”

Lena in Malmö noted that in Sweden, the first day of sick leave is unpaid (known as a karensdag or 'qualifying day', whereas following days are usually paid at at least 80 percent of a typical salary).

And Robb, a freelancer, said that Sweden's higher fees and taxes made it harder for him to work with overseas clients. “When working for the UK, the fees are lower, as the taxes and social benefits are, but I still need to pay the higher tax and social on the lower earnings so I lose out,” he explained.

Multiple others said that they had struggled with unexpected areas, such as socializing and finding housing, which impacted their overall experience in Sweden.

“After spending 11 years in Sweden, we still don't have Swedish friends and I know many more families in the similar situation,” said Sameer in Lund. 

OPINION: 'Don't be afraid of foreign workers. We are a key part of Sweden's future'

Several suggested that companies could help more with both social integration and assisting new employees with housing, while others called for the government to do more to ensure new accommodation was made accessible to others.

Of the 90 readers who shared their experiences with The Local, they were almost equally split in whether they believed Sweden was a good, bad, or average country for international talent, but almost twice as many answered 'no' to the question 'Would you recommend moving to Sweden for others like yourself?' as answered 'yes'.

As one reader summed it up: “Moving to any place in the world is challenging, but if you are adventurous I recommend Sweden. Being honest, there are other places where getting in to the labour market might be easier and the darkness and cold is something to consider as well, but if you manage to make it, Sweden is a great place to be: full of opportunities and a fantastic community. But be prepared and patient.”

FIND A JOB: Browse thousands of English-language vacancies in Sweden

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WORKING IN SWEDEN

INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?

The Local's Paul O'Mahony interviewed Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg, lecturer at Stockholm School of Economics and researcher at the Center for Responsible Leadership about the Swedish style of leadership.

INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?

Does Sweden have a distinctive management style?

The Swedish style of leadership is often said to be characterised by so-called flat hierarchies, where everyone is able to – and expected to – contribute their ideas and input to tasks, regardless of whether they are in a leadership role or not.

Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg told The Local that there are a number of different aspects which can influence management style, although Sweden does have a distinct style.

“I think that there’s definitely an idea that there is a specific Swedish or Scandinavian management style,” she said. “But I think from a research perspective, it’s much more complex, because we tend to generalise or stereotype.”

“It’s got a lot to do with the company culture and the culture of the country,” Karlberg said, “There’s definitely an idea of Scandinavian leadership, I think we have a common idea of what that is, but then, is it actually practiced everywhere in Scandinavia or in Sweden? That’s another issue.”

“In many of our organisations we talk about Scandinavian leadership where the leadership is very international, it’s a mix of different people from different cultures.”

Sweden is a very individualist society, which is also reflected in Swedish business.

“I think the core of what we talk about when we talk about Swedish leadership is the fact that leaders and managers also call on co-workers to take ownership on the task and individualism comes into business,” Karlberg said.

“It’s even expected, and co-workers take that ownership, and they engage and they take responsibility for the outcome and the result. So it’s the total opposite of micro-management in that sense.”

This culture of ownership and engagement also applies to managers, Karlberg explained.

“To generalise, in a Swedish setting, if there’s a meeting with the boss, the co-workers will expect to be listened to, and to be involved in a conversation and give their opinion on things. And that’s also a way to motivate people, in a Swedish sense.”

READ ALSO:

Can lead to cultural clashes

This expectation in Swedish workplaces can lead to clashes if employees from other countries are used to a different system, Karlberg said.

“In another culture, say Finland, for example – I’m just generalising – you go to a meeting with your boss and you expect the boss to motivate you and to tell you what to do. So if you had a Finnish manager in a Swedish context, Swedish co-workers would probably feel neglected or frustrated for not being involved. ‘No-one asked my opinion, I want to share my opinion, my opinion matters'”.

This can also happen in situations where a Swedish manager is managing a group of employees from a different culture or country.

“A Finnish crowd with a Swedish manager might be very frustrated if the manager just asks questions and doesn’t seem to have a direction of their own. There’s just different expectations”.

However, there is also a collective aspect to Swedish workplaces, which foreigners working in the country often pick up on.

“When I work with international crowds, they tend to notice that Swedish co-workers and managers are very collective, they want to have consensus, they have to discuss everything, and it takes forever and it can be very frustrating.”

Swedish co-workers aren’t afraid to speak up though, if they feel that the decision their manager is making is wrong.

“But there are a lot of behaviours where Swedish co-workers will not accept a decision. For example, if they feel that the idea that their manager is bringing is wrong, it will actually be their duty to speak up, not in a confrontational way, but to say ‘Hmm, you know, this idea about doing it this way, it’s probably not a good idea.'”

“And non-Swedish managers might not always appreciate that kind of reaction. And if it continues, and the manager says that this is the way we’re gonna do it, the typical Swedish coworker will insist that this is the best way, and then there is a clash – again, they expect to be listened to and taken into consideration.”

How do you know when a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace?

This need to feel informed and included in decision-making can in some cases make it difficult to understand at exactly what point a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace.

“It’s a different process,” Karlberg said. “It often involves a calculated plan for taking the time to introduce the decision, discuss it, and make people feel that they have been informed.”

This aspect of the Swedish workplace culture caused issues during the pandemic, when many employees began to work from home.

“Decisions are taken in a much more informal way, and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when something was decided. And we also saw that during the pandemic, that the typical Swedish organisation – which is very non-hierarchical – suffered a lot, because a lot of leadership is practiced in an informal work environment.”

“So when people were taken away from that environment – because suddenly they were working from home – it was sort of, you know, ‘how do we practice leadership now?’, whereas in an organisation with a much clearer hierarchy, it was never an issue where decisions were made or how leadership was practiced, because it was done in a different way.”

“And in the more informal, flatter organisations, we had to find a different way to do that, to translate into the virtual room.”

Despite this, Karlberg does believe that Sweden’s leadership style is effective.

“I would say that it is, yes. We stand out pretty well as a nation when it comes to different types of national measurements of competitiveness. We score quite high on that. Of course, there’s also a drawback, if people don’t want to take that responsibility and ownership, because then it’s not typical that the manager would step up and change the leadership style. So it depends on whether you actually share the same expectation.”

Where does the Swedish leadership style come from?

Sweden’s collaborative leadership style is perhaps a product of Sweden’s history, Karlberg said.

“We have always been a small country, very dependent on export. And that means that we had to adapt to the rest of the world and to other markets, but also having to collaborate – we’re too small to quarrel or fight.”

“This has been a way to bring people together in the same direction – it’s a little bit like how we work with the unions with much more of a collaborative focus instead of being confrontative, because it’s simply not rational for a small country like us.”

There’s also a strong tradition of independence in Sweden, Karlberg explained.

“There’s a genuine tradition of independence in the sense of mutual respect. And of course, a lot happened during the 20th century with the development of equality and the whole idea of individualist thinking. Where we’re individualistic with regard to family, with regard to gender, with regard to our roles in society.”

“I think that plays a part as well, with equality and also that everyone matters in that sense.”

You can hear Paul O’Mahony’s interview with Karlberg in our Sweden in Focus podcast where we discuss all aspects of life in Sweden and shed light on the latest Swedish news. Listen and subscribe.

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