If Finland is the happiest country in the world why do people long to opt out here too?

I’m reading Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything at the moment. It’s really an excellent read; I wish I had read it sooner. Partanen’s book so clearly explains the differences between life in Finland (or the Nordics) and the US and how these two very different social, political and cultural systems come together to create independent or not so independent individuals. 

Now, especially if you’re from the US, you may be guessing that the US system is the one that creates independent individuals, not the Nordic welfare state, but, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not. It’s the Nordic system that does that. 

One of Partanen’s messages is that the Nordic countries are most certainly not socialist, despite popular (American) belief, and that any Nordic person would balk at the idea. On the contrary, the Nordic model of social security and support allows individuals to be independent and to create good lives for themselves, instead of having them depend on for example parents, family members and employers just to be able to afford important, but basic, things like education, health care, day care etc. And yes, if you visit the Nordic countries, you will see that individualism actually does run strong throughout our cultures, for better or worse.

I strongly recommend the book, but that wasn’t actually the point of this blog post. What I want to talk about is how it is possible that opting out experiences can be so similar in both countries despite the differences that rank Finland at the top of so many lists* and the US much further down? How is it that people in a country like Finland long to opt out of their current jobs and lifestyles just as much as Americans do? 

Finland has recently, once again, been declared the world’s happiest country. It kind of makes you wonder, if this is the case, why is it that the opting out stories I have collected in Finland and the US are so remarkably similar? Why is it that people who live in a country with free education, free health care, more reasonable working hours, five weeks of legislated vacation time per year, long maternity leaves, paternity leaves, even longer parental leaves after which they are guaranteed their job back, high quality affordable day care etc. etc. etc., have very similar experiences to those who do not enjoy any of the above? 

How can it be that they also feel exhausted, they feel a lack of control over their lives, and they also have difficulties creating coherent life narratives? How can it be that they also reach a point when something’s got to give, or if not, at least long to leave their current way of living and working?

How come so many of the world’s happiest people don’t seem so happy?

Well, first I want to say, that no system or country is perfect. The happiest country in the world does not necessarily mean absolute happiness at all times. Finland is also ranked one of the most gender equal countries in the world, but that does not mean that the work here is done. Finland has not reached a state of perfect gender equality, nor will it any time soon at the rate we’re going.

I recently read that Finnish mothers are among the most stressed and exhausted in the world. The main problem is (in addition to the all-consuming motherhood ideal of today) that while Finland has among the highest percentage of women working fulltime, women also continue to be mainly responsible for childcare and household chores. While working life has become more equal, home life has been lagging behind, compared to Sweden for example. 

But one factor that has become glaringly obvious to me during all these years of researching opting out and having the privilege of hearing countless people’s opting out and in stories, is that regardless of any national differences, one common denominator is corporate cultures and ideals. They tend to be similar throughout the world thanks to globalization and global organizations, and they also tend to override local practices and sometimes even legislation. 

Let me give you an example. 

It happens, in Finland, that when a man wants to take some legislated paternity leave to get to know his child and to share the load with his partner, his employer may let him know that ‘it is simply not done in this company’. 

Research has also shown that men with low incomes are more likely to take time off to care for their children than are men in high-powered corporate positions. 

So what should we do? We need to work on changing work. We need to create corporate cultures that belong in the 21stcentury. 

* In addition to being ranked the happiest and one of the most gender equal societies, Finland is also considered one of the most stable, best-governed, least corrupt, and best-educated countries in the world.

Whoever coined the expression ‘it goes without saying’ had no idea what they were talking about

I read the other day that there has been a study that has found that while the world as we knew it was turned upside down last spring when we were hit with the pandemic, people have felt much more tired and have had a harder time coping this spring. I can really relate. I think we’re all pretty tired of the situation. Some have had an easier time of it during the pandemic and some have really struggled, but we’re all tired. Although I actually felt relief that I was forced to slow down last spring (despite the scariness of it all), now I just want it to be over. 

Those of us who have jobs that can easily be done from home have been especially lucky. A lot of people have really liked the opportunity to work from home and early studies found that most people hoped they could continue to do so after the pandemic was over. However, now studies have found that people feel lonely and they miss their colleagues, which really isn’t so surprising. It doesn’t mean that working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It just means that too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily great. And then there’s that pandemic fatigue I mentioned. 

Then yesterday I read something interesting in my local newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet. Columnist Annika Sandlund talks about how companies are calling their employees back to work at the office now the many countries are starting to lift their Covid restrictions. She cites a study conducted by Best Practice Institute that has found that while 90% of employees don’t want to go back to work in the office fulltime, 83% of managers want them too. This isn’t perhaps that surprising, reinventing how we work has after all been hardest on managers. They have had to rethink the way they manage.

This has led to a lot of improvements in work routines. Sandlund talks about how employees at Apple have found that working remotely has had a lot of advantages like spending less (or no) time commuting, having more time with family, being better for the environment and leading to better communication. Now here is where I come to my point. Sandlund found this last bit quite surprising; that communication was better when people worked remotely. 

I don’t find it surprising at all. On the contrary. If you don’t have all your people gathered around you, you have to make a point of telling them what you want them to know. This has been part of the reinvention of work routines that managers and other employees have had to do. And I think it’s great. 

The thing is, many seem to believe that if people physically work in the same office, information will pretty much flow automatically. I mean we see each other, we sit together in meetings, we bump into each other at the coffee machine, we strike up conversations in the hallway. That should do it, right? 

Wrong.

People really don’t automatically get to know things by just being in close proximity to each other. If you don’t make a point of systematically spelling things out and doing so in ways that enable people to actually receive and understand the information, they really won’t know what is going on. 

During my years as a consultant, one thing that almost all clients struggled with was challenges with communication. Employees didn’t feel informed even though employers felt that they shared information all the time. Apparently, many weren’t doing that great a job of it. Not until they were forced to restructure and reinvent their way of communicating when no one could come in to the office all of a sudden. 

I’m pleased that communication has got better for many. Let’s keep it that way regardless of how we start working once this pandemic is over. 

And let’s hope that’s soon!