September 22, 2021, by lizst4

Work-life balance: What could the UK learn from Denmark?

Many of Nottingham University Business School’s current research projects are investigating key economic and social issues that have been thrown into stark relief with the Covid-19 pandemic.

A project led by Professor Tracey Warren, an expert in social inequalities in work, who is working with researcher Ms Lene Hyltoft, is examining the meaning of ‘work-life balance’ and identifying international innovations in work-life balance practices and policies.

The UK was already performing poorly on work-life balance when compared to other countries across the world, even before the Covid-19 pandemic intensified work pressures and worries for many.

The project, funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, looks to Denmark as a global trailblazer in work-life balance issues to see if the UK can learn any lessons to improve work-life balance among its workforce.

Here, Professor Warren and Ms Hyltoft give some background around the project and outlines some of the key lessons the UK could learn from Denmark.

Denmark: leading the world in happiness, hygge and … work-life balance?

The small north-European country Denmark stands out in international surveys as one of the world’s happiest societies.
• Denmark came second, out of a total of 156 countries, in the global happiness race in 2017-19, just behind the winner Finland.
• The only two cities from Denmark that were examined for the World Happiness Report’s rank of happy cities were Aarhus and Copenhagen. Both came in the top five, out of a total of 186 cities worldwide. Aarhus came second, Copenhagen fifth.
• London was the only UK city examined. It came out in 36th place.

Alongside these outstanding levels of self-reported happiness, Denmark is also well known internationally for ‘hygge’. Hygge is a concept that is difficult to translate into English, often simplified to ‘cosiness’, but it is far more than that: hygge is core to Danish everyday living, happiness and identity.

Hygge – the simplified ‘cosy snuggly lifestyle’ version – has been popularised, commercialised and exported widely outside Denmark in recent years. ‘How to’ guides on hygge have proliferated. Hygge has been drawn upon to sell such Danish-inspired lifestyle products as scented (‘hygge-flavoured’) candles, hygge cookery books, as well as comfy hygge jumpers (inspired too by Danish-noir thrillers) and even ‘hygge hair-bands’.

Denmark: a global work-life balance trailblazer?

Rather less well-known than Danish hygge and happiness is the fact that Denmark is also one of the global trailblazers in ‘work-life balance’ rankings.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) ‘Better Life Index’ explores wellbeing across countries using 11 diverse topics, including work-life balance. Denmark regularly tops or is among the front-runners in work-life balance. The OECD measures work-life balance by examining how many people in a society are spending very long hours at work; the typical time that people spend on leisure and their personal care; as well as the national employment rates for women with children.

The UK: a work-life balance straggler?

While Denmark stands out as a trailblazer on work-life balance here, the UK fares far worse. The UK is a global work-life balance straggler, sitting in an abysmal 28th place (out of 38 countries) in this work-life balance ranking.

The UK’s weak performance raised serious and perplexing concerns about work lives in the UK, even before the Covid-19 pandemic intensified work pressures and worries for many.

Can the UK learn any lessons on work-life balance from Denmark?

Given the UK’s inferior work-life balance standing worldwide, we carried out research to ask what the UK might learn from its seemingly far more successful near-neighbour in promoting better work-life balance among its workers.

What did we do?
• we read in detail what has been written on work-life balance matters in Denmark by academics, campaigners and policy makers.

Who did we talk to?
• we interviewed experts in Denmark who work and/or research in the area of family, work, care and employment.

What themes did we explore?
We asked experts in Denmark:
• how they view the apparent Danish global success in matters of work-life balance.
• what the UK and other societies might learn about work-life balance matters from the Danish experience.
• about the Covid-19 pandemic in Denmark and its impact on work-life balance there.

What did we find?
• We cannot understand work-life balance in Denmark without full knowledge of the Danish welfare state and the Danish cultures of work and everyday living. Danes believe strongly that a working age person should have a job: paid work connects citizens and underpins Danish society. But spending very long hours a week at work, as many people have to do in the UK, is frowned upon and people largely try to avoid this in Denmark.

• Denmark’s system of publicly-supported high quality child-care provision is world-leading and underpins work-life balance for parents. Kindergarten (equivalent to pre-school or nursery in the UK) staff are well-educated and far better paid than their UK counterparts. Danish parents say they want to send their young children to kindergarten because they get to spend time with other children, playing together and learning together. Parents can carry on in their jobs without having to reduce their hours or take long breaks because they cannot afford good child-care, which is common in the UK.

• Covid-19 brought health and safety risks to workers in critical occupations in Denmark who still had to go out to their jobs. The pandemic eased work-life balance pressures for some groups of worker who could work from home. As in the UK, however, there were inequalities in the experiences of covid-compelled home-working such as who had suitable home office set-ups and who also had to manage intensive caring responsibilities while trying to do their jobs.

So can the UK import the hygge work-life balanced lifestyle?

Rather than mirroring those ‘hygge-scented’ products that simplify and commercialise Danish identity in order to sell candles and hair bands, it’s wrong to imagine that we might just import a simplified version of Danish work-life balance into the UK.

The Danish welfare state and the cultures of work and everyday living in Denmark that underpin work-life balance there come as a package. But what we can take away from Denmark about work-life balance is the importance of:
• battling a long-hours culture in the workplace
• providing workers with both living wages and living hours.
• recognising that care work (caring for children and others) is essential work
• training care workers well and treating the workers as a qualified and skilled labour force

About the project

Our research project ‘Evaluating the work-life balance framework: a pilot project to gain insights from Denmark, a world leading work-life balanced society’ is funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grant (reference SRG19\190498), and supported by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Image © Lene Hyltoft, University of Nottingham

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