Will American’s ever accept shorter workweeks?

Americans work an average of 1790 hours versus the Danes at 1540 hours
Americans work an average of 1790 hours versus the Danes at 1540 hours

I came across an article comparing Danish workers to American workers. The author talked about how happy Danish workers are to be at work while American workers seem to have a universal dislike of being at work. The author attributed this to the fact that Danes work regular weeks while Americans work long weeks. The shorter workweeks mentioned in the title are not those often mentioned of a three or four day workweek, rather by shorter workweek I mean just 40 hours.

Danes are happier

The article is called 5 Simple Office Policies That Make Danish Workers Way More Happy Than Americans, written by Alexander Kjerulf. He says that Danes are so happy at work that they have a specific word for it, arbejdsglæde. Kjerulf says that the Danes are consistently the happiest people in polls, not only at home but at work as well. He feels there are 5 “policies” that help lead to this happiness. These include:

#1 Reasonable work hours

Americans see the necessity of working long hours as a way of showing your dedication in hopes of getting ahead. Bosses interpret “just” putting in a 40 hour work week as being lackadaisical and undedicated. We talk about people like that as being “clock watchers” and make jokes about making sure you are not standing in the door way at 5 pm because you will get run over. Americans work an average of 1790 hours per year and the Danes work an average of 1540 hours. Obviously this gives Danes much more leisure time. They take 5 to 6 weeks of vacation plus national holidays. Danish management buys into the idea that a happy worker is a more productive worker and indeed the Danes are the most productive in Europe.

#2 Power distance

Power distance is not so much a “policy” as it is a big cultural difference. Basically it means how much authority the boss has in the workplace. Kjerulf points out that the U.S. has a rating of 40 in power distance on the Hofstede cultural scale while the Danes have a rating of 18. This means the boss is much more authoritarian in the U.S. than in Denmark. Of course the U.S. rating of 40 is much lower than many Asian cultures like China with an 80 where the boss is never questioned. What this means for the Danes is that they have a lot more autonomy in their jobs than do most other people in the world. We know that more autonomy usually leads to greater job satisfaction.

#3 Generous unemployment benefits

Unlike the U.S. where you when you lose your job you may be on your way to financial ruin because of the state of unemployment benefits in Denmark their unemployment pays them 90% of their wages for two years. This gives the Danes much more freedom in changing jobs. If you don’t like your job you are not locked into it as Americans are. The ability to leave a job and find one you really like certainly makes for a happier workforce. Loss of healthcare in Denmark is also not an issue because of the national program.

#4 Constant training

Denmark has what is called an “active labor market policy.” Kjerulf says this means “an extremely elaborate set of government, union, and corporate policies that allow almost any employee who so desires to attend paid training and pick up new skills.” This allows Danish workers to stay trained, relevant and employed.

#5 A Focus on Happiness

The Danes have a built in cultural focus on being happy. As I said above they have a word for being happy at work. They expect to be happy at work. If they are not they move on and find a place where they are. Managers focus on making sure people are happy. This is contrasted to many American managers who seem to focus on making employees miserable, most likely because they are also unhappy.

Can Americans be happy at work?

I think the answer to this is a “yes” on the individual level. I know several people who love their jobs. As a result they spend more time doing the work. This is however not the same thing as the Dane who loves his work and does not work anymore because they are happy with where they are.
However, I don’t see the US moving to a Danish type of system. The cultural backing is not there. We don’t have a single dominant culture. We don’t have the nationalistic healthcare or unemployment system to support a Danish model. (I wonder if they have ever done a study on “system cheats” in Denmark?) We certainly don’t train employees at the level they do.
Sorry American worker not going to happen.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

3 thoughts on “Will American’s ever accept shorter workweeks?”

  1. I’m not sure what type of work the Danes are doing but I would love to consider moving toward establishing some of their benefits. Americans are too focused on long hours and unrealistic demands either by their bosses or themselves. I work in an environment where you only get 2 weeks vacation a year regardless of tenure! The type of work we do does require 5 days a week, but those days could also be cut to 4 days a week for some with just a little scheduling. I absolutely agree that happier people make happier and more productive employees. When will America wake up and realize that treating employees better will only enhance their bottom line!

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