“We’re trusted to do a good job, then leave”: why the Danes finish work on time, every single day

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Helen Russell
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Danes don’t do presenteeism and come ‘Cinderella Hour’, offices empty for the day – something that’s good for all of us, as Denmark-based British journalist Helen Russell discovers in the world’s happiest country 

‘Still at the office, pulling a late one,’ reads the message from a friend I’m supposed to be meeting for coffee. This is followed by a crying cat and angry sheep emoji. ‘So sorry. Will make it up to you,’ she apologises before sending a picture of herself looking forlorn in an otherwise deserted office.

It’s only 5.30pm, but this is the equivalent of burning the midnight oil in Denmark.

With a typical working day 8am-4pm and overtime frowned upon, Denmark has the best work-life balance in the world. The official working week is 37 hours but a recent OECD study showed that the average Dane only works 33 hours a week.

Danes don’t do presenteeism and staying late is more likely to earn you a lecture on inefficiency and time management than a pat on the back. 

This came as a shock when I moved to Denmark from London in 2013 for my husband’s job at LEGO (he’s basically one of Santa’s elves now).

Working from home as a freelance journalist, I’d just about had time to answer a few emails and wolf down some rye bread when my other half was back again. I took this to be a first day exception, but then the same thing happened the next day. And the one after that. And then Friday rolled around and he was home at 2.30pm.

I panicked at first: Was he ill? Had he been fired? Had LEGO melted? (my mantra: why think rationally when you can add a little drama?). But no, he told me: people just leave even earlier on Fridays.

I asked a few of my shiny new Danish friends about this and canvassed other internationals on whether they’d found the working culture alien to begin with. An American confessed she’d had ‘plenty of WTF moments’ and been convinced one colleague was having an affair to start with.

“She had ‘HENTE BØRN’ written in her calendar every day at 3.45pm and I kept wondering, ‘Who is this guy? How come she runs off to see him each afternoon?’ I was picturing some secret liaison with a Mads Mikkelsen-alike. Then I got the Google Translate app-”


“-Turns out it means ‘pick up the kids’ in Danish. Shame...”

This is commonplace in Denmark, I discovered – but non-parents make sure they clock off on time, too.

“I have ‘gå til gym’  (’go to the gym’) or ’fitness klasse’  (take a guess…) blocked out in the diary from 4pm and everyone knows not to book meetings after this,” a child-free friend explained: “Come Cinderella hour - home time - everyone from the receptionist to the CEO goes. We’re trusted to do a good job; do our work; then leave.”

This level of autonomy takes some getting used to.

One Brit still felt obliged to stay late and put in extra hours, “-because that’s just what you do in the UK if you want to get ahead.” She stopped after six months when she realised she was essentially working in a ghost town come 4.45pm: “I’d end up having to wheel around on my chair, waving, to get the lights back on because I was the only one in the office. So I thought, ‘sod it’.”

I remember many a late-night-office-wheelie to get the lights going in my old life, back in London: running in heels, tutting in the queue at Pret because I ‘just had to get back to my desk’, wild-eyed, sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated. Working long hours was considered a badge of honour and I knew one boss who did a victory lap of the building at 6.30pm every day to check who was still at their desks - promoting them accordingly. Overtime was a sign of commitment: of dedication. Or, it now emerges, stupidity.

Because working more than eight hours a day has been shown to increase stress, heighten the risk of heart disease and cause increased consumption of Maltesers (this is from personal research).

By contrast, workers are 12% more productive when they’re in a positive state of mind. Denmark has one of the happiest workforces in the world and is the second most productive country in the EU as a result. By working less, Danes achieve more…and stay sane (mostly).

The philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that leisure was an essential component to living the good life and described it as the time when ‘the soul is refreshed’ and ‘civilisation is created’.

He claimed that humans only had time to think big thoughts and come up with new ideas (like the wheel; dry shampoo; gin and tonic in a can etc.) when given time to rejuvenate - and that the pursuit of personal interests was a necessity for healthy living. Old Bertie proposed that we should all work just enough hours a day to meet our needs. This way, everyone gets time for work, rest and play - something the Danes just have licked.

Come 4pm, my neighbours will be paddle boarding, or singing in a choir, or going on a bike ride, or hanging out with their kids, or cooking together, or cracking open a beer in the beautiful Scandinavian spring…er…snowstorm… 

So in the spirit of living Danishly, I decided to join them and signed up for a few extra curricular activities of my own, which meant I had to stop working and clock off – even as a freelancer. After a hard day at the not-at-all coalface, I hovered the cursor over ‘Shut Down…’ on my laptop, and clicked.

There was silence.

I could hear my fridge whirring and the dog snoring. But other than that? Nothing.

Nobody called up to shout at me for not answering an email. No bat-light went on over the North Sea to summon my expertise. I had a startling realisation that I was not nearly as indispensible as I thought I was – and this was A Good Thing.

Now, I stop work at 4pm every day – and the world does not end. I have a life; hang out with my family; exercise; see friends. And it feels great.

How to leave work on time, the Danish way

Here’s how everyone can get a happy work-life balance, Danish-style:

Get a life…outside of work

Having somewhere better to go is the number one thing that will get you out of the office on time and studies show that being active and prioritising leisure makes you happier, healthier and more productive.

Stand up for yourself

Most Danish desks are all fitted with hydraulics so you can work standing up - something that’s better for our health (according to research published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science) as well as making meetings more efficient - so you can get out sooner! Instead of asking a colleague for a ‘sit down’ to chat, try a ‘stand up’ - you’ll be done in half the time.

Fake a family

You know your colleague with the kids who always has to slip away early? Well Danish work-life balance expert Martin Bjergegaard advises everyone to ‘pretend’ they have children, giving leisure activities the same attention a family would demand – and get you out of the office on time.

Trust in your abilities

You’ve been hired to do a job: you can do the job. Get your work done the best way you can, then go home. Don’t worry about what anyone else is up to - it only takes one person to break the cycle and help change workplace culture.

Remember: The world will not end if you log off and leave

What are you still doing here? GO! #VivalaRevolution

Helen Russell is the author of The Year of Living Danishly – Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country (Icon, £8.99). She tweets @MsHelenRussell #livingDanishly

Images: iStock

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Helen Russell

Helen Russell is a journalist and bestselling author. Formerly an (occasionally glossy) editor in London, Helen now lives in Denmark with her husband and three young children.