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Workplace Improvement: What Foreign Countries Can Teach Us?

Woman waiting standing with her luggage waiting for her plane




As witnesses of unprecedented times, we live in a rapidly changing world that challenges us to improve and rethink our workplaces. 2020 saw the world battling a pandemic that necessitated agility, quick adjustments, and a shift to remote work.

In retrospect, we were not prepared,  despite having the resources to ensure economic stability. The overwhelmed internet structure, lack of safe work practices, and overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in frontline jobs are only a few examples of why our workplaces need to improve. 

Even though half of Americans are fully satisfied with their workplace, employers and organizations should strive for a much higher number. Otherwise, we are content with being the most overworked developed nation, using only 73 percent of available time off, and having no legally mandated annual leave.


We don’t have to invest time in thinking arduously about where to start, because efficient models can show us the way. Countries with the highest quality of life can inspire us to create happier, more human-centric, and balanced workplaces.


How Are Countries with the Highest Quality of Life Different from the United States?

A 2020 study by Blacktower Financial Group analyzed data for quality of life relating to metrics that determine happiness, such as average monthly salary, World Happiness Report, and cost of living. According to their results, the best five countries for living and working abroad are Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Australia. The U.S. ranks 20th. 


But what do these five countries do differently from the rest of the world, and how can we use that as inspiration to improve our workplaces and provide employees with meaningful work?


1. Switzerland: Work-life Balance and Overtime Pay

Unsurprisingly, Switzerland is also at the top of Numbeo’s Quality of Life list for 2021. Perhaps Switzerland is best known for high-quality chocolate and the mesmerizing Alps, but its employee benefits and job opportunities are becoming increasingly popular. 

business woman working overtime after dark at her workplace in Switzerland

A Randstad survey found that 79 percent of Swiss employees are satisfied with their employer and job, which is no surprise considering their benefits and conditions.


With a population of 8.6 million, the average employment rate in this small country is 79 percent. Swiss people earn 62,283 USD per year on average, and the weekly working hours are between 40 and 44. 


The law prohibits more than two excess working hours per day and compensates overtime with an additional premium of 25 percent. According to OECD Better Life Index, the number of Swiss employees working long hours is lower than the average. 


Besides caring about work-life balance, Switzerland ensures that all employees have healthcare and insurance. Sickness allowance compensation protects workers from losing a salary due to illness or pregnancy. 


Employees are entitled to paid time off. That is four weeks per year or five for people under 20. Thus, both full-time and part-time workers have the right to paid maternity leave


2. Denmark: Harmony and Independence

With 5.8 million inhabitants, Denmark has an employment rate of 65.80 percent. The median annual salary one can earn in this Northern European country is $84,842.

Distributed over five days, Danes typically work 37 hours in one full-time working week. Compared to overworked Americans, Danes have enough time for family, hobbies, and leisure time. As Denmark has a labor market model called flexicurity, they can take stress leave and still get financial help from the state. 

pebbles balancing on top of each other as a symbol of harmony in Denmark

While the U.S, workplace culture glorifies hustling and working long hours to earn more money, Danes see it as bad time management. They believe it’s essential to maintain quality work and do as much as possible in the allotted time than to linger on obligations all day and have poor results. Thus, Danes also have flexible work arrangements that allow them to switch between office and remote work. 

Five weeks of vacation time are guaranteed to every Danish employee, regardless of their position or sector. On the other side, the average American worker had 10 paid days of annual leave. Nordic people have a practice called lagom, meaning that the secret to happiness is balance. Following that principle, Danes are not the ones to dream about being billionaires and dedicate themselves to work only. 

As there’s an emphasis on harmony in Danish society, there’s no visible hierarchy in the workplace. Instead, it’s flat and implied. Everyone contributes equally with their ideas, participation, and opinions. Danes use an informal tone in the workplace, and their status and title are not overly significant in work and communication. They are democratic and encourage equity. 

Danish workplaces appreciate and stimulate employees’ independence and initiative. Workers typically work independently on their tasks without the employers monitoring them. But they do ensure everyone is involved, which is why all employees participate in social activities and events, such as summer picnics, quiz nights, etc. 


3. Iceland: Equality and Generous Days Off

With a population of 356,991, Iceland is a small island country with an average yearly salary of 57,516 USD. Icelanders are family-oriented and put their loved ones first, but that reflects in workplaces too. Icelandic workweek never lasts longer than 40 hours, including lunch.

Icelandic family with a newborn baby taking their time off work

Employees are entitled to a minimum rest period of 11 continuous hours per day, ensuring they have ample time to rest, sleep, and relax. Furthermore, they also get a 15-minute coffee break during working hours, which offers a brief but valuable opportunity to recharge and unwind. These practices collectively contribute to their overall well-being and productivity. Icelanders consider that every work with a contract that exceeds eight hours is overtime, and employees will receive compensation depending on their salary. 

Thus, Icelanders are entitled to up to four months of sick leave after five years of work or six after ten years of employment. Injury insurance covers all employees in cases of work-related accidents. 

Workers accumulate holidays over time, with 24 weekdays of paid leave being the minimum and up to 30 days after ten years of work for the same employer. Iceland is among the leaders in gender equality. The gender pay gap is thus 4.5 percent. But in the U.S., the annual gender wage difference is 10,157 USD

Like in Denmark, Icelanders foster a business culture of equality with a flat hierarchy, a relaxed environment, and networking. 


4. Norway: Employee Development and Autonomy

One of the world’s wealthiest nations, Norway has a population of 5.4 million people and an average annual salary of 84,131 USD. Like other Nordic countries, Norway also has a flat hierarchical structure, employees have a high degree of autonomy, and workplaces are friendly and nurture personal development.

Happy Norwegian employee on top of a mountain near Lofoten Islands enjoying his freetime after work

The emphasis is on work-life balance and family values. Employees spend an average of 42.9 hours per week at work, and organizations encourage them to disconnect once they leave the office. For instance, only 29 percent of employers expect workers to be available by phone, email, and text messages during the holidays and personal time off.

Norwegians are entitled to 25 working days off per year.

Employees thus receive paid sick and parental leave, including 15 weeks of paternity leave.


5. Australia: Flat Hierarchy and Relaxed Communication

Australia has a population of 26 million people and an employment rate of 61.20 percent. The median annual salary in Australia is 87.517 USD.

Employees work maximally 38 hours per week, and employers pay overtime at a higher rate. Thus, all full-time and part-time workers get four weeks of annual time off, plus paid parental leave of up to 18 weeks. 

Australian workplaces are laid back and relaxed, and they strive to maintain a clear boundary between work and personal time. The emphasis is on the team because Australians don’t give a lot of importance to individual rankings. Hence, there’s a flat hierarchy in the workplaces, and communication is honest and straightforward instead of formal. 

Relaxed and laid back Australian employees having an informal conversation with their team lead

Developing Happier Workplaces That Nurture Work-life Balance

 The United States is known as the country where everything is possible if you work hard enough. But what if stress, crazy long hours, and taking no time off are not the best formula for reaching the American dream?

Americans work 50 percent more than Germans, Italians, or the French. Thus, they hardly ever use their time off or break time, and there is no paid maternity and family leave. The work itself and accumulating as much money as possible are of paramount importance in the U.S. That leaves little to no place for healthy habits, disconnection from work, and work-life balance.

Australia, Iceland, and Denmark encourage employee autonomy and individuality. But they also know that success is better when people work in a team and share the results. It is why our workplaces should strive to nurture connections and collaboration while supporting employees to share their ideas and opinions openly.


With regard to paid maternity and family leave, the top five nations are more family-friendly. In the U.S., only 18 percent of workers receive paid family leave. Yet allowing parents to take paid time off and take care of their children can reduce stress and help employees adjust to the new reality with more ease.  


Maybe it’s time to ask ourselves if being one of the most overworked nations is really something to be proud of. Instead, employers should consider flexible working schedules and reasonable working hours. That will give employees more time for their families,  hobbies, and passions – and, in the process, prevent burnout, nurture work-life balance, and ensure happier employees.

Tina Nataros
Tina Nataros
Tina Nataros is a content writer and journalist, passionate about HR and digital technology. In her free time, she works on starting her website and watches Sci-Fi movies.

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