The Swedish Work-Life Balance Model

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Understanding What Is Meant By Work-Life Balance

Work-Family or Work-Life balance is a term that has been used by many scholars, experts, and legislators with many meanings throughout the years. Though a specific definition may not be immediately forthcoming, the general idea behind these terms is the balance or ratio between time spent working and time spent with loved ones, in recreation or leisure, relaxation, or pursuing hobbies.

For this article, we are going to focus primarily on the family aspect, and most particularly, the ways in which the relationship between working parents and their offspring affects the health and psychology of all family members.

The ways in which a workplace may impact home and family life are numerous and often differ depending on the very identity and role of the worker and family involved.

When a workplace or a family necessitates a choice between investing more time one or the other - else a consequence will be suffered - that is a work-family conflict. When those conflicts become the norm for an employee, that employee would be said to be experiencing work-family or work-life imbalance.

Though the term work-life balance is more broad, generally the same issues that would cause conflict between work and life are the same as those that create conflict between work and family. In “Work Life Balance”, a book by Janice Arenofsky, this broad issue is explored in greater depth than could be possible here. Arenofsky identifies in the text several origins of work-life imbalance; gender roles, financial pressures, family values, work-family conflict, personal goals, home problems, and co-workers are each identified as a major source of work-life and work-family imbalance

Essentially, work-family imbalance emerges when a job consumes too much effort or time - whether physically or mentally - for adequate effort and time to be given to family life.

A Glimpse Into Work-Family Balance In The United States

Developing a culture within a company is imperative to the health of the employees and the progress of the company. The same is true of a nation. Just as those companies with the most attractive benefits, nurturing culture, and considerate expectations attract the best and generate the most stable and dedicated workforces. In fact, it could be argued that, more than attracting the best talent, businesses with good company mindset, good benefits, and a compassionate general managerial approach create the best workforce. The same is true in aggregate of a nation.

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All of these things hinge on the workplace being capable of allowing employees to have a flourishing home life, family life and recreational life. In allowing employees to have a rich home and family life is to improve their work satisfaction, ultimately increasing productivity, satisfaction, and creativity. All of this sounds intuitive, but let’s look at some supporting facts:

  • Of 38 countries surveyed, the U.S. rated 30th in work-family balance.
  • Nearly 12% of American workers dedicate over 50 hours/week to their job(s).
  • Citizens of those countries rated highest have an average of about 4 hours more each day to dedicate to themselves, their families, and leisure than the average American.
  • The average American male spends 8.35 hours/day working, while the average woman spends 7.84 hours working each day.
  • 66% of Americans feel their work-family life is out of balance.
  • 33% of Americans work at least one weekend day on average.
  • 60% of Americans say their boss directly and negatively impacts their work-family balance.
  • Nearly 40% of Americans blame constant expectations to work beyond standard hours as a primary contributor to work-family imbalance.
  • 39% of Americans say inflexibility in their hours contributes to work-family imbalance.
  • 30% of Americans blame long commutes for work-family imbalance.
  • Nearly 60% of Americans say that technology (smartphones, etc) has ruined the modern family dinner.
  • 16% of employees seeking new employment were looking because of work-family conflict, usually surrounding inflexibility in their workplace.

Work-family imbalance precipitates negative consequences at work and at home; with those experiencing work-family imbalance more likely to suffer depression and anxiety, miss important life events, and suffer at their work as well.

What We Can Learn From “The Swedish Model?

The nation most identified with work-family balance is Sweden.

Swedish society has been able to make great strides to improve balance between family life and work life. Some of this is cultural, but more so, the foundation of the so-called “Swedish model” for work-family balance is policy.

In Sweden a robust government-mandated support network exists to assist parents in their caring for their children and allowing for adequate time in an employee’s life to engage with and enjoy the significant moments in a child’s life. Beyond legislation, there is also a contribution from Swedish employers, hospitals and the healthcare network, and the greater culture - the success in work-family balance observed in Sweden and other similar nations hinges on a total commitment of the society to support working parents.

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Key elements of Swedish policy which nurture healthy working families include ample leave for parents following childbirth. 480 days of paid leave per child are offered to all new parents, the days can be split however the parents decide, with both parents getting a minimum of 90 days to bond with the child. Further, Sweden dictates that every employee is entitled to 25 days (5 working weeks) paid vacation out of every year. Offering generous vacation time gives parents adequate time to bond with their children and spouse beyond the special leave offered for parents of newborn children.

After the first year, a period where Sweden has nearly all children being cared for by either one or both parents, Sweden’s policy is to cover over 90% of daycare for working parents. This policy of subsidised daycare reduces the burden on working parents. The culture in Sweden also results in less total hours of work per day and more flexibility in hours and workdays allowing more parents to be available for important events in their children’s lives.

Importing and improving upon existing Swedish policy regarding work-family balance could do a great deal of good for the United States. Developing healthy relationships and habits outside of work makes sense economically as well as psychologically and sociologically. Workers with a healthy home and family life are more productive and less likely to fall ill and take time off. They are also far less likely to suffer from psychological turmoil. These factors improve health, creativity, and productivity.

Though the Swedes have experienced great improvements in the gender equality of their culture, and the productivity and health of their employed population - especially those dual-income households, which make up a majority of Swedish families.

Beyond The Swedish Model

Though the Swedes have and do enjoy a far more copasetic balance between work life and family or home life, there are imperfections in Swedish policy. In an article presented to the U.N. in 2011, the success of certain Swedish policies are cast into doubt, justified by some issues with behavior and declining outcomes for the children as a whole as compared to the great outcomes realized during early implementation of new policies such as daycare subsidies and there extended maternal and paternal leave.

Jonas Himmelstrand, in articles on the very topic of the Swedish model, points out that some of the diminishing returns come from limitations placed on child care options - though daycare is covered 90%, home care, granny care, childminders, or relative care are not given any support. Furthermore, home-schooling is forbidden. For some children, these options are the most nurturing and develop the best outcomes - and we shouldn’t be blind to it. 

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We need to move forward as a society and realize the humanity of all of us. Not only realize it, but cease to shame it. We need to embrace our humanity and enjoy our relations with others and cease to expect of ourselves and others such a profound sacrifice in order to earn a living. We need better policies, but we also need a better corporate culture and society as a whole. We need to stop tolerating abuses of power and begin to expect and demand rational and considerate treatment for employees - including respecting work-family balance.