How to work like you’re in Finland

Anu Partanen, a journalist and the author of The Nordic Theory of Everything, moved from Finland to the U.S in 2008. She spoke with Ladders about how work life compares between the two countries — and what the U.S. might learn.    

One of the things that surprised me most about working in the U.S. was the anxiety that many Americans feel about their work lives.

Finns tend to have more peace of mind about their work. In contrast, Americans tend to be much more worried about job security and balancing work with their personal lives.

Here are some ways the countries differ in their approaches to work that help explain that divide and offer solutions.

Power dynamics

In Finland, as in all Nordic countries, universal policies provide certain rights to everyone, including health care, vacation time, and parental leave.

These universal policies mean that employees are less dependent on their employers and are able to have a more equal relationship with them.

In the U.S., employers usually have much more power than employees. The companies often control the workers’ access to basic needs such as health care and leave.

It’s also easier to fire people in the U.S., which makes some employees feel like they could always be out of a job, and thus potentially out of health insurance.

In Finland, you can fire employees if they don’t do the work or if your company is doing poorly, but you have to have a real reason and make a case. It’s not as easy as just telling them to clear their desk. This gives employees more security.

Hierarchical structure

American workplaces, especially in corporate environments, tend to be more hierarchical than in Finland.

Of course, in the U.S. you have places like Silicon Valley, which are famous for their hoodies and chill atmospheres. But, overall, workplaces in Finland tend to be more relaxed.

Finnish employees often have more independence to figure out their own schedules and approaches to problems. There also aren’t as many titles, and it’s easier for people to approach their bosses.

This sense of equality often results in Finnish employees feeling more respected in their jobs.

Work motivation

Finns often think that there is a clear divide between their work life and the rest of their life.

Americans are often much more passionate and ambitious about their careers.

I admire the drive Americans have for their jobs. And now that I’m used to the American pace of everything happening right now, the Finnish approach to work can be frustrating.

But I wonder how much of that American drive is a result of workers’ dependence on their jobs and their fear of being left behind.

This can drive them to work harder, longer hours that can leave them feeling burnt out and guilty about not being able to be home for their family.

The Finnish approach frees people to work more because they want to. It also shows that people can be efficient even when they have more freedom to take the time they need without any repercussions or guilt.

If you look at Finland, or any other Nordic country, you can see that they are wealthy, modern, well-organized societies with innovative, successful companies — even though their workers tend to have more time off than Americans.

Time off

In Finland, all workers have the right to paid vacation, usually about five weeks a year, and almost a full year of paid parental leave. All Nordic countries have more or less similar policies.

Since everyone, including the boss, takes advantage of these policies, they are accepted and seen as normal.

In the U.S., vacation time and parental leave depends on the employer, which can cause problems.

If not all employers offer paid vacation time, it could end up punishing companies that do. People are also often hesitant to take the vacation time that’s allotted to them because they are worried that it will reflect poorly on them.

In fact, making vacation time ingrained into the culture can help increase efficiency. When people have time to recuperate and rest, they come back and feel rejuvenated and more productive.

The same is true for parental leave.

A lack of paid parental leave or short leave times can create both emotional and financial pressures on parents in the U.S. and cause them to be less efficient in their work because they are tired from taking care of a baby and consumed by worry and guilt about not being able to give enough time and effort either at work or at home. Some end up dropping out of the work force completely because finding balance is so hard.

On the flip side, American women who do work tend to be in higher positions because they haven’t taken time off. In Nordic countries, more women work than in America, but their careers tend to stall because they take more time off for leave.

Finland is now encouraging fathers to take more leave in an effort to increase gender equality even further.

Work-life balance

There’s an American myth that work-life balance must be negative for the employer.

But Finland shows us that you can have work-life balance, and you can still have successful companies.

The Finnish company Nokia was the world’s largest mobile phone company for more than a decade. KONE is one of the largest elevator manufacturers in the world. And mobile game companies such as Supercell, maker of Clash of Clans and Hay Day, and Rovio, creator of Angry Birds, are examples of new Finnish tech companies.

If you look at Nordic countries as a whole, the tally of successful and innovative Nordic companies and brands is even more impressive: Ikea, H&M, Spotify, Ericsson, Volvo, Electrolux, Carlsberg, Minecraft, Novo Nordisk, Maersk, Fjällräven, and so on.

When companies embrace practices that encourage more flexible work times, paid leave, and more independent employees, employees can be more efficient, more loyal, and more content.

In the long term, Americans should look to enacting universal policies that will let workers better combine work with their personal lives.

In the short term, they can start talking to their employers about the type of workplace they want to create to together. The Nordic countries offer a lot of evidence for what works.

Anu Partanen is a journalist and the author of The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life.

As told to Kirsten Salyer.