Out of Office: why month-long holidays are the key to Swedish unicorn success
In this guest article, Linnea Bywall, Head of People at Swedish hiring platform Alva Labs, looks at the Swedish approach to taking holidays and how its contributed to the success of the country’s unicorns.
Before the age of the smartphone, going on annual leave was simple. You left your desk, safe in the knowledge that all your papers were in the office, and any inbound calls would be picked up by someone else. Regardless of seniority, anyone could be truly out of office. That’s no longer the case. It’s standard for people to bring their phone on holiday, and although it may just be to take some holiday snaps, it can quickly turn into a way to check your emails, or Slack. Being constantly available is one of the appeals of the smartphone, but when you’re trying to relax, it’s all too tempting to ‘just’ reply to that email, or ‘just’ take a look at that document.
This is far from a unique phenomenon: in fact, 60% of UK workers check their emails while on holiday. But this seemingly innocuous action doesn’t depict you as a model employee: rather, it could be an inhibitor to success.
Burnout: an office epidemic
This refusal to take real time off work isn’t isolated: it’s part of a wider problem with working practices. Burnout is an ever-increasing issue for the workforce – 80% of UK workers say that they’ve been affected by workplace burnout, while for startups, 48% of founders admit to experiencing feelings of burnout.
It’s easy to see burnout as just a buzzword, but the reality is it’s a serious condition, that can degenerate and require clinical treatment. In fact, in Sweden the severity of the issue has become so well-recognised that various doctors are treating patients for burnout.
But the effects of burnout aren’t permanent. They can be reversed or countered by implementing consistent, healthy working practices. Going on vacation once a year, for only a week, won’t make a difference, but working to establish healthy boundaries around work/life balance year-round can.
So what’s the solution? As with many other problems, the solution can be found in examining the methods used by the most successful. And in business, that means looking at unicorns: a vast number of which are based in Sweden.
To replicate the winning formulae of Spotify or Klarna, there’s a number of factors at play. But one that stood out to me over the past couple of months was the attitude towards vacation time. In Sweden, vacation is much more like the school summer holiday of our childhoods: longer, and part of the working year.
In Sweden, summer isn’t just a season, but a social institution. Everyone takes a summer holiday, and the Annual Leave Act gives workers the opportunity to take up to four weeks of consecutive holiday. In fact, some Swedish companies offer even more: at Alva Labs, we can take up to seven consecutive weeks of holiday at once. Even though most Swedish workers don’t have significantly more time off compared to other countries, the expectation around time off means the structure is entirely different.
What a month offers workers
The effects of a long break offer a number of perks. For one, there’s simply more time to relax – when you add travel into the equation, the amount of relaxation time is naturally decreased. This gives more opportunities to reflect on life and the role work plays in your life – and a chance to enjoy time with your loved ones that isn’t a rushed weeknight meal.
A long holiday can benefit the work you produce both before and after. If you are more relaxed and refreshed, it’s likely that your work will reflect that. But while you’re preparing to go away, the prospect of a longer holiday means that you most likely have more to get done before going away. There’s a natural deadline in place, which encourages you to push yourself to complete necessary tasks.
Beyond just a holiday
What’s unique about Sweden’s annual leave is the possibility to take so many consecutive weeks off. There’s no clause saying that you have to, but the offer is there for the taking. Having such a relaxed policy means that people are more willing to take two or three weeks off more often: from the very top, this policy models how important work/life balance is as a value. If you see your senior team taking multiple weeks off, you’ll be more inclined to act similarly, because the leaders are setting the example that life outside of work matters. Sweden’s government is doing that on a larger scale, but it’s a pattern that can be introduced into any office.
This can even be introduced on a micro level. In 2019, research found that over a third of UK office workers didn’t leave their desk during their lunch breaks. I can’t help but think about how many of those workers aren’t seeing good examples of what a healthy attitude towards work looks like.
Rest is such an important part of our lives. We know that good sleep is key to good health – and yet so many of us don’t prioritise it. Similarly, we don’t prioritise the rest that we need in our careers, and that attitude can be detrimental to ourselves. In galleries, artworks are taken off the walls to be restored – and when they return, they look better than they did before. If we want to improve our performance at work, and improve how we feel at work, it’s essential to carve out time to relax. If you don’t, you risk so much more than you would by missing an email.
Close your laptop: it’s time to be truly Out of Office…