In our exclusive extract Swedish-Irish writer Linnea Dunne outlines why lagom (pronounced lah-gom), is a recipe for happiness at work and at home.
Move over hygge. Lagom is the new Scandi lifestyle approach that’s taking centre stage. Based on the belief that anything more than just enough is a waste of time, it offers a calm counterpoint to our fast-forward lives.
Born of a culture with a Lutheran work ethic and strong unions, there’s no denying that lagom takes work very seriously.
Yet the importance of taking due time out of work is equally respected, with the majority of Swedish workers walking out the door the minute their contracted hours are up — and that’s after a number of decent fika breaks.
Working outside the box
The lagom approach to work could be described simply as common sense, exemplified by the following scenario typical of the many reports I have had from the lagom-uninitiated (that is non-Swedish) in Swedish work contexts.
The new recruit asks of her or his boss: “How long do you want me to spend on this task?” To which the invariable reply is: “Until it’s ready.”
You’d think it goes without saying: Don’t waste time on a job that’s already done well enough, but equally, don’t deliver a job that’s not up to scratch. If you do it right, you’ll spend a lagom amount of time on it.
Perhaps a lack of anxiety around the definition of what a lagom amount of time actually is can be linked to the prevailing consensus culture and non-hierarchical company structures.
Enter förankringsprocessen, a concept for running ideas by everyone impacted by them, allowing everyone to voice their opinion and then discussing everything in detail before arriving at a decision that everyone can get behind.
And ‘everyone’ doesn’t just mean the board; it means the executives and the recently employed graduate, because who knows what groundbreaking perspective they might bring?
With this in mind, while it may seem surprising that Swedish businesses tend to rank as comparatively very efficient, you might begin to see why making a call on the completion of that task isn’t so daunting.
Similarly, you may be casually strolling out the door 20 minutes early, and that’s also fine. Your colleagues, including your boss, will simply assume that your work is done; otherwise, you obviously wouldn’t be leaving. A crucial theme is trust.
The lagom work–life balance is supported in Sweden by its tradition of almost shutting down for the summer, with most professionals taking at least four consecutive weeks off for a proper summer break.
Parents get generous parental leave as well as the right to flexible working, or at least working shorter days, for the first eight years of a child’s life.
But even without such benefits, we can take the lagom lead and spend as many of our evenings as we can with family or friends, cooking, eating, and chatting about the events of the day. And when it comes to Friday, there is the Swedish example of fredagsmys, the ultimate comfort eating experience featuring a pick-’n’-mix taco buffet, crisps, and dips while vegging on the couch in front of the TV. What better way to kick off the weekend than in true lagom style?
Leave work on time. Research has shown that it makes us happier and more productive.
DID YOU KNOW?
The average Swede works 1,644 hours per year, compared with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 1,776 hours. And yet Sweden ranks sixth in the global competitiveness index.
Cultural differences aside, your internal monologues and the way you deal with feelings and emotional experiences can very much be changed, regardless of where in the world you live. Here’s a Swedish psychologist’s take on a lagom approach to mental wellbeing.
“Simply speaking, affect theory, which describes the organisation of emotions and experienced feelings, suggests we have a basic set of emotional states that are universal. These are meant to help us navigate through life — like a compass of sorts.
"When we learn, depending on our experiences, either to suppress or to overreact to our own emotions, that compass doesn’t work very well.
“We need to know how we feel about certain things to make sound decisions, yet without allowing the feelings to take over completely.
“Being in touch with your feelings in a lagom way is thought to be linked to good mental health and making sound decisions. That’s the goal of many therapies, to find the right balance — to get better at identifying emotions you’ve perhaps learned to suppress and learn to manage and harbour feelings if you have a tendency to overreact.”
Erika Stanley is a psychologist based in Stockholm.
In 1974, Sweden became the first country in the world to replace gender-specific maternity leave with parental leave. It was initially introduced as a right to three months’ paid time off work for each parent, with the father allowed to sign his days over to the mother if that worked for the couple. But it wasn’t until the use-it-or-lose-it rule was brought in that real change happened — in 1995, a dedicated “daddy month” was established, and now three months are earmarked for each parent.
In total, Swedish parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave when a child is born or adopted, to be taken by either parent at any time before the child turns eight. They also get paid time off work to care for a sick child (termed VAB, which stands for vård av barn, with the month of February now notoriously known as Vabruari).
Add a highly subsidised and quality-controlled childcare system, with all children aged one or over guaranteed a place in kindergarten at an almost insignificant fraction of the real cost, and you’ll see why Sweden is often described as a utopia for parents.
How equality relates to lagom
The most gender-equal countries also typically score high on the happiness scale. Businesses that are more gender equal do better; employees are happier; and they have a low turnover of staff, high retention rates, higher job satisfaction. and higher productivity rates.
Moreover, more egalitarian couples are happier — and that goes not just for both partners, but for any children they may have. Their kids do better in school, are less likely to need to see a psychiatrist or need medication. Mothers in equal relationships are healthier, happier and less depressed, and fathers are healthier, smoke less, drink less, and are less likely to suffer from depression.
The 2016 Happiness Index, collated by employee intelligence platform Butterfly, found a very strong correlation between work-life balance and overall employee happiness. Indeed, employees from across the globe confirmed that the area in which their employers were failing them the most was work-life balance, with a willingness to change systems, processes and conditions to improve workload and flexibility being key for employers to increase employee happiness levels.
Put simply, gender equality and family-friendly policies are beneficial on a personal level as well as with regard to both micro- and macro-economics. Everybody wins.
DID YOU KNOW?
The percentage of working women in Sweden is the highest in the European Union, at 78.3%.
More than just a coffee break, fika is an institution in itself. In the context of work, it serves a number of very lagom functions. If there’s a practice in place that makes a proper 10am break acceptable, surely that can only be a good thing?
If, in addition, it means that people don’t just take their eyes off their screen for 15 minutes or more but also end up chatting to each other, catching up about industry news or the challenges of the afternoon’s client pitch, it can take both the office culture and the company output to the next level.
Note the differences between fika and elevenses. More than just topping up your coffee, fika is about an exchange, a connection; about unplugging from the task at hand and being present with your colleagues in true lagom style.
The fika startup
Getting your workplace to adopt a proper fika culture might be a challenge, but start small and you’ll be able to reap many of the benefits. Ask your desk neighbour along for your morning trip to the kitchen or coffee machine, or offer to make them tea.
The next time you need a face-to-face chat with a colleague, suggest meeting in the staff room or canteen. If you feel ambitious, volunteer to get a Friday fika routine happening. I can’t see too many people kicking up a storm over being fed cinnamon buns.
Box breathing, or foursquare breathing, is a technique used to tackle anxiety, either on demand as the symptoms appear or on a daily basis.
Simply get comfortable then inhale and count to four. Hold your breath for another count to four, and release through your mouth, again on four. Wait four seconds before stopping or repeating.
Try mindfulness Aiming for “non-judgmental
awareness of the present moment”, mindfulness helps you accept hings you cannot change and has been proven beneficial in a great number of ways, including helping to prevent depression relapse.Through awareness and acceptance, mindfulness can help you trust in your experiences and encourage authentic living — including a full spectrum of experiences and emotions.
“It can be useful to think in terms
of a ‘growth mindset’ as opposed to a ‘fixed mindset’,” says psychologist Erika Stanley. “When things don’t go as planned, take the opportunity to practise acceptance of failure. Reflect on what you’ve learned and try to take that with you to the next attempt,which will probably go much better.”
Images: Naomi Wilkinson
Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living by Linnea Dunne is published by Gaia, €11.50
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