Arbejdsglæde: the Danish concept of happiness at work

If your company has ikigai, you’ll find there’s more töörõõm and arbejdsglæde going round.

No, I haven’t gone mad, and my keyboard isn’t broken. It’s because the lexicon of business is expanding, and these interesting concepts, borrowed from cultures around the world, can help us understand how to do things better.

This isn’t the management-speak of kanban or some sort of productivity ‘hack’ that you get bored of after a few weeks. These are cultural touchstones from different societies that seem to do business a little better than others.

The core of these ideas comes down to this:

More happiness at work = more productivity.

Not just surviving, but thriving

The Scandinavians seem to have things figured out, don’t they?

Good foreign relations, productive economies, and a social contract that allows society and business to thrive. It can be easy to simplify a entire nation, and of course, they aren’t without problems. But we can learn things from some of their life philosophies.

We’ve seen the concept of hygge ("HOO-gah") going round the UK for a while, especially in winter - "a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment.”

It’s spawned a host of books, blogs and how-to guides, showing us the life-changing magic of reading a book by the fire with a hot chocolate.

One-word concepts like these are great for reducing complex ideas into their essence. They also don’t quite have equivalent translations in English, but we can get the general gist of it.

Here’s some you may not have heard of:

Sisu - Finland’s concept of stoic determination. Grit, chutzpah, tenacity - whatever you want to call it, the Finns are full of it. Resilience in the face of adversity is a mindset that helps us get through things when the going gets tough.

Ganbaru - this Japanese word (similar to sisu) roughly translates as slogging on tenaciously through hard times; to strive through a task and see it out to the end.

Tokimeku - a Japanese phrase translated to ’spark joy’ in Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up phenomenon, although it does usually have a wider meaning of ‘heart-fluttering’ or ‘flourishing’.

Töörõõm - an Estonian word meaning ‘work fun’: finding the simple joys in everyday tasks.

Ikigai - this word from Japan translated as "a reason for being". This is the reason you wake up in the morning; the thing that gets you out of bed.

These are all concepts that could help us, both in life and in work. But there’s one in particular that stands out, even though it’s not easy to say.

Smiling woman by a window
Photo by Brooke Cagle / Unsplash

What is arbejdsglæde, and why do businesses need it?

Arbejdsglæde ("ahh-bites-gle-the") is, unsurprisingly, a Scandinavian word. It’s Danish in origin, but is understood around the Nordics to mean "happiness at work".

It involves the simple idea of looking forward to Mondays; having a job that energises you instead of draining and exploiting you.

We’re slowly getting away from the old Puritanical idea that work must entail suffering and exploitation. Promoting arbejdsglæde might seem to oppose productivity, but in the long-term, that’s just not the case.

Happy employees:

  • Have more creativity
  • Have more energy
  • Come up with more ideas
  • Are more motivated
  • Are more resilient
  • Do a better job instead of cutting corners
  • Have a harmonious work-life balance
  • Are less frequently absent

Happy companies have lower staff turnover, more loyalty, and higher profits.

And perhaps most importantly, they have happy customers.

It's not just about the money

Large salaries, bonuses and benefits can only make us happy up to a point.

If you’re suffering from lack of money it will be unfair and you might struggle in life until the situation is resolved. But it’s not the complete answer. Being miserable at work in return for lots of money isn’t the best of compromises, and will eventually burn you out.

Knowing that you’re making a positive impact in the lives of your coworkers, community and society at large is going to give you the drive to put in more effort each day. It’s the difference between putting in the bare minimum and going all-out to solve difficult problems and create value.

More companies are starting to realise that having purpose, and a happy workforce. Recently we’ve seen a collaboration between 181 American corporations proclaiming a new understanding of the purpose of business.

They’re big words from mega-corps with questionable reputations (does anyone really think ExxonMobil is going to be a role model in fighting climate change?) but it’s a start, at least.

Maybe a dose of arbejdsglæde will spread through their supply chains.  Maybe it’ll inspire smaller businesses to follow suit.

How to cultivate arbejdsglæde in your business

It’s not necessarily easy, but it is simple.