Swedish society is founded on 'lagom'. Meaning not too much and not too little, it is a word that most other languages do not have. You are not allowed to be too rich or too poor, nor too flamboyant or too boring – you should be like everyone else and not stand out.
We love many aspects of working life here such as generous holiday allowances, maternity and paternity packages as well as a supportive government when it comes to child care, elderly care, health care and so on. In addition we work fewer hours than many of our European counterparts. So why are the Swedes so stressed?
Is 'lagom' and the famous Swedish equality to blame? We think it might be.
According to recent figures by Sweden's Work Environment Authority (Arbetsmiljöverket) the number of people taking time off because of stress has increased over the past five years. With over 40 percent of work-related illness being down to stress it is time to take a long, hard look at ourselves.
Having worked at a large Swedish company and numerous large American and British firms we think we have a good view of the problem.
On the one hand, Swedish corporations focus on aspects of working life that are important to people, for example having a regular income that covers basic needs such as food, housing and general living costs, they often fail at allowing people to grow to their full potential. But while people want to feel that their life is secure, they also want to feel valued, make a difference and do work that has a purpose.
In Sweden everyone gets the chance and time to present their opinion and be involved. But are companies not in reality here to do and act – not just think and debate?
This, in our opinion and experience, is where the Swedish work culture fails. Giving everyone a chance to voice their concern and offer a view means decisions are never really made. Sometimes they just happen, but that does not give people a sense of satisfaction.
And who wants to be a 'lagom' good mother, father or employee? We want to be great. We met one successful businesswoman who was consistently overachieving her sales budgets. When she was called in to her manager's office for a meeting she expected a pat on the back or at least a “well done”. Instead, she was asked to take her foot off the accelerator and to slow down, as she was showing up those who were struggling to make their targets. A culture of 'lagom'?
Also, all the things in a working day, week, month and year that employees should give feedback and offer their views on in the Swedish workplace is overwhelming. This makes it hard to prioritize and this in turn makes people feel uncomfortable; discussing the office toilet paper brand instead of the sales that need to be made can be demotivating.
Sharon Green and Johanna Milne believe the Swedish tradition of 'lagom' is killing potential in the workplace. Photo: Radio Results International
Lacking in achievement and or not feeling good enough can lead to negative stress. This is what causes people to, as it is expressed in Sweden, 'hit the wall'.
Statistics suggest this is becoming a fairly common occurence in Sweden, whereas during 12 years working in the London job market our team never met one person who took sick leave due to stress.
Is this to do with a different way of approaching mental health in the UK? Were we just lucky? Or ignorant? Or is there actually a stress epidemic in Sweden?
Either way, we believe that Swedish business leaders could do more to encourage employees to fulfil their potential and that this could help end negative stress caused by a tradition of 'lagom' in the workplace.
We believe the four following goals should be implemented by Swedish managers:
1. Set smart, motivational goals that people understand and that matter to the company.
2. Allow people to 'do'. Brave leadership inspires brave employees. It means you are allowed to fail and learn and grow both as an individual and a business.
3. Talk about what is important and what you can change and make better.
4. Create a coaching culture based on two-way feedback.
Our advice to companies out there is to support leadership. Support and listen to the people who make decisions. Of course be receptive to input from other employees, but not from everyone every time. Create a vision and purpose for the organization and create motivating, understandable goals that stretch and challenge your staff.
If managers and leaders created a culture where everyone could succeed and develop, we believe that we could radically reduce stress among the Swedish workforce. We do not become more equal by letting everyone discuss everything – we become tired and overwhelmed.
Johanna Milne is Business Inspiration and Strategy Director for Stockholm-based career development and coaching firm Radio Results International. She co-wrote this article with her colleague Sharon Green, Innovator and Cultivator of Human and Business Relations.