Creative leaders from Stockholm have realised that the country is no longer immune to the creativity-threatening (and sometimes life-threatening) dangers of workplace stress, writes Alex Reeves
To most of the world, Sweden sets a standard for looking after its citizens. Built on the foundation of a strong culture of social democracy, like its Nordic neighbours it frequently tops tables of global happiness and wellbeing
. A healthy attitude to work-life balance seems to be a key component of that, with Swedes working fewer hours than almost any country in Europe
The state provides a comparatively generous level of security and protection, which removes a lot of stress from people’s lives, notes Karin Wester, global chief human resources officer for B-Reel. “School and day-care is free, even university, you have paid maternity and paternity leave, paid sick leave, social security if you lose your job and a basic pension when you retire,” she says. “This means that regardless of how much you earn, your kids will have the possibility to go to college, you can afford to be sick and also retire, etc. That removes a lot of stress that I see employees having in other countries.”
Sweden was one of the first countries to take mandated shorter working days seriously. In Sweden, a trial in the city of Gothenburg mandated a six-hour day, and initial findings suggested employees completed the same amount of work or even more
The country’s focus on equality has helped push quality of life too. Its famously generous parental leave system means leave is paid out for no less than 480 days
(approximately 16 months) for each child and this is encouraged to be shared between mothers and fathers, with at least 90 days to be taken by each and only single custody parents entitled to take all 480 days on their own.
The impact of this has been positive for all Swedes. With parental duties less heavily associated with women, employers have had to become more accepting of people working around family commitments. “We have come a long way in regards of gender equality,” says Karin. “At most workplaces men stay home with sick kids as much as women. Employers have a positive attitude to employees leaving early to pick up kids from preschool, etc. and also, generally, a positive attitude to staff working from home, leaving early or coming in late - as long as the work gets done.”
Liz Dussault, a Canadian who works as an executive producer at Stockholm production company Aspekt, observes that Swedish working culture is more accepting of “finding compromise or entirely stepping away within one’s professional life, even in the midst of great momentum, in order to prioritise personal or family life.”
All of this frees up time and makes it possible for people to dedicate time to family, friends and their passions outside of work - activities that we all assume contribute to better mental health - without fear of being seen to be slacking professionally.
Perhaps Sweden’s strong social safety net has given its workers a false sense of security. Swedes throw themselves into work that they love and don’t notice when aspects of what they’re doing are damaging to people’s wellbeing. “Sweden has not been to war for more than 200 years. We have a very strong social security system,” says Ann Ystén, CEO and managing partner at Stockholm creative shop Perfect Fools. “I believe this has led to Swedes [being] brave and entrepreneurial but also a bit spoiled compared to other countries. We won’t just take any job. We want the job to fulfil our lives.
“But that doesn’t mean that Sweden doesn’t have issues with stress-related mental health issues. Those are rising and mental illness is now the number one reason for sick-leave in Sweden. It used to be back problems and the change, I believe, is an indication of the society we live in.”
The lack of statutory workers’ rights in the USA is well documented and the gruelling long-hours working culture of Japan is famed
, with the country even dedicating a word to death caused by overwork - karoshi.
From an outsider’s perspective, we might not think Swedish working culture has much to improve upon, but the struggle for workers’ wellbeing is an ongoing battle, as the death of an advertising agency employee who took his own life in 2015 made all too clear
. Peter, an account director at Sitrus, died as a result of working stress, the Swedish Social Insurance Agency ruled in 2018. It was a wake-up call for the Stockholm ad industry, with trade press column inches dedicated to what it meant and the agency’s CEO at the time asserting that the warning signs weren’t picked up on
Because of the sense that the state protects them from disaster, Swedes work hard and feel reluctant to raise their voices when something is wrong. “We have high demands on ourselves in general,” says Karin, “a very high work ethic and a culture where we have a tendency to not openly raise our voices when we feel overwhelmed or mistreated.” But something is definitely wrong. Mental health complaints are on the rise in Sweden. Numbers of reports of depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders has risen in young people over the last 30 years
. According to the Swedish health authorities, antidepressant prescriptions increased by 36% between 2006 and 2012
As cushioned as Sweden may feel, with its comparatively compassionate standards of work-life balance, there’s no escaping the fact that Swedes today live and work in the age of hyperconnectivity - where the internet, with all its pressures and anxiety triggers. is never more than a tap away.
Adjacent to this issue is the fact that the advertising industry is more interconnected and global than ever, meaning that if you want to be responding to emails 24/7, you absolutely can do that. Unfortunately, many agency working cultures will value that behaviour, even in Sweden’s social democratic climate. “The ad industry is very competitive and a lot of young people dream about one day having a chance to work for an agency,” adds Karin. “This also puts pressure on the current staff, you can quite easily be replaced by someone younger and less prone to complain about the workload. And the possibility to work from home also allows you to work around the clock, sometimes maybe without it being noticed by your manager.”
Stressed out employees might look like they’re being productive, but don’t have what creative companies rely upon to deliver and execute great ideas for their clients. “The advertising industry is overrepresented when it comes to young, ambitious people and there is also a culture, in many agencies, where stress is a positive. If you’re not stressed you’re not good. I strongly believe that is wrong,” says Ann. “Stress is often a result of psychological fear and fear kills creativity.”
Smart companies realise this. They focus on building positive working cultures worthy of Sweden’s reputation for happy, contented workers. It’s not as easy as that might sound, though. “A ping-pong table and free beer might not be what the employees want or need,” says Ann. “A human-centric culture means understanding that we are all individual and different and building a culture where the expectations are individual as well. To do this there has to be a psychological safety so that the culture enables transparency and communication. Management should focus more on these questions. People are not problems. They are your only asset and it is your responsibility to make sure they thrive.”
Liz recognises that the world of commercial production, things are often “unpredictable” and work at a “breakneck speed”. “So much of our industry is based project to project with varying demands on one’s schedule,” she says. But in between pitches and shoots Liz says Aspekt encourages people to experience other things: “To travel somewhere, to take proper time off in the summer, to spend some time in nature, to catch a screening, to check out an exhibit, to just turn off for a while, and if you’re a parent then to tag in as primary caregiver while your partner prioritises a work commitment. That space is restorative, it nurtures creative thinking, and it widens perspective. It also means being selective when assessing a work opportunity, placing good creative at the top of heap when evaluating a project.”
A general sense of valuing employees as whole people, rather than assets to put the hours in and deliver profits, is healthy, but companies should go beyond culture, and there are tangible things that many Swedish agencies and creative companies are implementing to make sure their employees are in the right condition to delivering creative brilliance. Much of it is down to diligent management that goes beyond just delegating tasks. Perfect Fools include mental health and work balance questions in their regular employee survey. They follow up with projects on an individual level making sure that no one has too much to do over a longer period of time, and provide support when it’s needed. “We talk about how we feel and share own experiences,” says Ann. “We listen. If people have the courage to bring up that they feel lousy they definitely do. And then try to support the individual as best as we can or provide outside help.”
B-Reel makes sure that everyone gets frequent reviews and check-ins that are not only focused on work results, but also workload, and how they are collaborating with colleagues. Karin says it’s important to “have open discussions about expectations, deliverables and resources. Actually make feasible resource planning and allow time to recover after working overtime. We’re quite a small team and look out for each other.”
They offer all employees private health insurance that also contains psychotherapy if needed. They encourage employees to take care of themselves through different initiatives, wellness grants, allowing them to leave the office for gym sessions. Lately the agency has also made a major push for wellness through speakers about alcohol and drug addiction, stress, unconscious bias and other issues that intersect with wellness. And, naturally, they also offer weekly yoga Nidra sessions.
Aspects of the Swedish national psyche help the country resist the relentless demands on workers of late-stage capitalism and its corporate hunger. Notions like ‘lagom
’ - the concept of doing ‘just the right amount’ of something, including work - and ‘fika’ - the importance of sitting down and chatting over a cup of coffee - definitely help. “In the long run this opens up for an attitude that is a bit more relaxed,” says Karin. “Work doesn’t necessarily come in the first place, family and wellbeing does matter a lot.” But as the sad case of Peter illustrates, the country’s ad industry needs to stay vigilant about the erosion of work-life balance it faces.
“Work-life balance is not about limiting working hours or work pressure,” concludes Ann. “Today, especially for young people, life often adds more pressure than work.
“To be as perfect as the people we follow, I believe we need to talk about and start building a culture less focused on perfection and more focused on the beauty of individuality.”