So you’ve wheeled through Netflix binge watching recommendations six times before ultimately settling on The Office, again. It’s Sunday night and tomorrow is Monday. What does Monday mean to you now? It’s a fresh week, shimmying from a resting mode into your working one, but how do you feel? Eager? Tired? How are you?

Even at the best of times, work can play a huge part in our mental wellness and the maintenance of it. After all, we spend a large chunk of our waking hours at work, wearing work savvy clothes (maybe less so over the last 12 months), with our minds occupied by work-related things- and it’s a delicate balance to find that perfect point where productivity thrives before the dark shadow of stress takes hold.

Is there one universal way to work? Definitely not. Can we travel right now and check out different working cultures ourselves in person? Also no.  

But can we have a wee glance at the merits and drawbacks of different working cultures globally and their impacts on employee wellbeing? We absolutely can and I would love to play tour guide.

Heading East

Japan

When I think of Japan, I think sushi, karaoke bars and - from my copious devouring of J-dramas, manga and anime - I also think of salarymen.

Traditionally, salarymen are the white collar workers who conduct their working lives in a very uniform manner: white collared shirt and tie, office based, 1 hour time slot for lunch (and it’s the same time, noon-1pm every single day), early starts and unpaid overtime late into the night. This way of life is for many more than just a social norm - it’s a badge of honour. Work hard, play hard is a very real thing (this is where those karaoke bars come in), but what happens when there’s no time for play? Or even sleep?

Overworking is a very real thing if balance isn’t managed effectively; in Japan, serious health concerns and even death is such a common occurence there’s a word for it: karoshi. This term, coined in the 1970s, is still widely used today in Japanese culture to describe deaths reflecting strenuous working conditions. There is even a subset called ‘karōjisatsu’; and this is exclusively used for those who commit suicide due to work related stress and strain. Understandably, exact numbers are difficult to collect, however, it’s thought that approximately 2000 people a year commit suicide due to work related conditions, and if past patterns are to be trusted, death by exhaustion and occupational sudden mortality is likely to be higher.

Despite government policies from the mid 2000s onwards which mandate employers check in on their employees’ wellbeing and redress work/life balance, karoshi is still a modern day problem in many industries, and many other countries.

Sadly, Japan isn’t alone with a work ethic which has become somewhat notorious for prioritising work productivity and output over consideration of employee rights, physical and mental wellbeing.

China

Since opening up to foreign trade, economic reform and trade liberalisation in 1979, China’s economic growth has seen dramatic economic growth l- but at what cost? Its economy  is predicted to overtake the US’s as early as 2028- and China’s work culture is undoubtedly one of the key factors behind this substantial economic growth

The ‘996’ practice is an inherent and widely used part of the Chinese work culture. It is also, in many ways, celebrated by important figures and industry leaders who speak openly in its favour.

The 996 mentality is the concept of working 12 hours a day (9 am to 9 pm), six days a week, every week as an industry standard. Employees are not rewarded for these gruelling hours; it is to be expected and, rather, those who do not meet them are shamed for poor work ethic and a lazy attitude.

Founder of Alibaba (think Chinese eBay...but bigger), Jack Ma has openly praised the 996 work culture, stating “To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss” and that prospective employees should expect to work 12 hour days or “why bother joining?”

And Ma is not alone in this mentality: CEO of Xibei group Jia Guolong came under fire in 2020 when expressing his belief in ‘715’- the concept of working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. This popular ideal of glorifying labour is nothing new, but this level of over exertion at the detriment of individual health simply isn’t sustainable; and crashing seems almost inevitable.

Understandably, this approach to workforce management is not one which considers longevity; 35 years old is considered the cut off point for those who even make it that far before burning out and many tech giants in China will not even consider hiring those who have already hit 30.

Perception is perhaps part of the problem. In countries in which this working attitude is ingrained, there is little sympathy for those who work themselves to death; on a whole, wellbeing and the individual will always take a backseat to collective profit.

Saying Howdy

It’s fascinating therefore, to look at the perception of wellbeing in an American workplace; after all the American dream is built off the back of hard work and an ideological meritocracy.

Long hours can, perhaps, be expected, but you might also expect fair compensation in return for this ‘live to work’ mentality: Reflective pay? Career progression? Reports, however, seem to suggest neither are commonplace. Instead, low pay, a poor work/life balance, lack of vacation days, and categorising employee well being as more a HR function are all points frequently cited.

Contradictions cloud the culture- staff may be gifted gym memberships and encouraged to keep fit but are then rarely given the time to actually use their perks. There is an expectation to work, and more so, to work hard is part of national identity.

But it’s not all doom and gloom; after all, the US is home to many tech giants who are leading the way in what practices make for an optimal working environment for their workforce. Microsoft, Google and Amazon are regularly praised for their forward thinking focus and application of it on a mass scale. They take a lot of pride in implementing strong core values, encouraging a team mentality and taking the steps to lead a cultural shift by example.

For many, via Glassdoor, the ‘Big 9’ is often cited and practised as a measurable means to translate cultural values into something more concrete. This looks at collating data from employees in the following areas:

  • Agility
  • Collaboration
  • Customer
  • Diversity
  • Execution
  • Innovation
  • Integrity
  • Performance
  • Respect

And by translating this data into clear rankings, we’re given a concise snapshot of how a company performs in each area (and of course as a whole.) Patterns are clear, and in general we see tech companies, semiconductors and enterprise software ahead of the curve; whereas regional banks, investment services and insurance tend to perform poorly.

Truly, it’s a very exciting time for the working landscape of America. As the shift continues and more companies start to incorporate flexible working for a younger workforce with different needs, there’s so much potential for a cultural uplift and more of an employee wellbeing focus à la Zoom.

A Nordic way?

So, what can be said about the countries who adopt a very different approach to workforce management and already place emphasis on the importance of employee wellbeing?

(Also, yes, I may be biased because we’re entering cinnamon bun territory and I’m a sucker for fragrant baked goods.)

The Scandinavian work model has long strived to strike a sustainable work/life balance. With core beliefs of happiness and employee satisfaction being its own reward, the Scandi model sees employee wellbeing as beneficial not just for the employees but for all parties involved. By ensuring a happy workforce, companies are seeing results reflected in the form of higher quality work, increased productivity and a high retention of experienced staff.

‘Jantiloven’ is a concept widely adopted by Nordic countries, and shares the egalitarian ideals which much Nordic infrastructure is based upon. This concept looks at treating all members of a team with equality, treating employees not simply workers but as people, with its core message being one of encouragement; building a community within your workforce.

The Scandi work culture considers staff to be an investment and an asset; high turnover and burning out is not viable for long term company growth, and so a more humanistic approach is taken. Leading companies set industry standards of a truly impressive nature, matching their mission statements with employee benefits. Many companies spruce up their employee packages to include; competitive wages, internal developmental opportunities, flexible hours and working options, and gym memberships.

And there is a lot to be said about this hygge culture of ensuring a well rounded sense of wellbeing in the workplace. Nordic countries have spent the last decade constantly topping rankings in World Happiness and, undoubtedly, their cultural attitude towards balance, recognising mental and physical wellbeing and simply caring about their workforce shows.

So how can you bring best work practices into your team?

Introduce Fika!

A big part of Scandi work culture, Fika is the time set aside to chat and bond with your colleagues over coffee and a cake. Guys. It’s cake. It’s chat. It’s coffee. Three great things combined can only lead to bigger great things, non? Mutual bonding has been found to boost productivity and helps keep that connection strong - plus it’s easily transferable for remotely based and virtual meets too.

Regular Bouts of Praise and the Inclusion of Positive Incentives

Celebration and recognition of your employee accomplishments is a great way to show appreciation and really bring your workforce into that fold of feeling valued. Whether this means dropping in praise and highlighting progress and productivity with more frequency, introducing rewards for reaching certain milestones, or having a bit more fun with it (The Dundies, anyone?), it costs nothing to value those who are important to us- and to our working environments!

Encourage Individual Working Habits

Teams are made up of individuals, and individuals have different preferences for how they like to work. An effective workforce management is ensuring that your team has the tools and autonomy to manage their own productivity. Employees want to feel heard, trusted, and flexible working is proving to be a growing preference, especially amongst younger generations joining the workforce amidst and post Covid.

Here at Desana, we’ve noticed a marked improvement in the wellbeing of our users; the option of using our lovely network of flexible workspaces when, where and if you fancy it, gives the best of both worlds, and for some, has been nothing short of transformative.

Practice Little Acts of Mindfulness

When things are tricky it can be easy to lose sight of all the good; but don’t worry, they’re not gone- they just need attention! And it’s a great exercise in grounding and appreciation to take a little time to celebrate the things which went right this week. Mindfulness is also an important tool for adopting a growth mindset; and this in turn helps us grow as individuals both inside and outside our working roles in the face of adversity and the unknown.

Consider Catch-ups and Communication Styles

Forgetting to post a message in your group chat or losing track of touching base with a colleague/employee can happen- and we’ve definitely all done it! With remote working it can be all too easy for ‘out of sight, out of mind’, right? Fortunately new norms are just as easy to implement and become a natural part of your team’s core structure. By making sure that 1-to-1s are a regular occurence, implementing team meetings with a familiar and replicable structure on a consistent basis, and keeping everyone involved and in the loop with company wide news, you can play a big part in collective unity.

The Internet is Your Friend

And lastly, you are always a mere Google away from endless realms of resourcing for all your (and your employees’!) wellbeing needs. If in need of a little inspiration, why not peruse a little, discuss as a collective, test out novel ideas and see what works for you and your team?

Here are some resources we love:

  • Employee wellbeing tips with remote working in mind.
  • 9 easy to initiate support steps (especially loving the concept of duvet days!)
  • See how other companies are implementing wellbeing initiatives.
  • If you can overlook the merchandise plugs this list actually includes a lot of excellent points to consider (such as the importance of friendship, aww).
  • And obviously I’m going to end on the highest of high, which is reminding you all that this blog exists and social remote bonding is not only possible, it’s incredibly fun and a great place to start!

We’d love to hear how it goes! Found something especially game changing? Let us know!