Danes have the best work-life balance in the world thanks to these 3 important beliefs.

By the end of her first week living in Denmark, Helen Russell was worried about her husband's brand-new job.

She explained in an article she wrote for Stylist that she was sure Lego had fired him already because he kept coming home early.  

Originally from the U.K., Russell was used to her home country's work customs, where late nights and long hours were worn as a badge of honor. She felt surprised and embarrassed when her husband first came home from work in the early afternoon — she'd hardly started her own day of freelance writing.


The trend continued, she said, and by Friday, her husband was strolling through the door as early as 2:30 p.m. But it wasn't a reflection of his work ethic. It turns out, in Denmark, working fewer hours is ... just what people do.

Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.

This healthy work-life balance is such a crucial part of Danish culture that they even boast about it on the country's official website.

It's a major point of pride for Denmark, which has a reputation for being the happiest country in the world. The government encourages a 37-hour workweek, a designated lunch break, a minimum five weeks of paid vacation, extended and paid parental leave, and flexible schedules with the option to work from home as well as incentives for child care. On average, Danes spend less than one-third of their time working — and yet, they're still more productive than most of the European Union or the United States.

You might be thinking, "What's the catch?" But the truth is that Danish values and national attitudes are behind the country's commitment to work-life balance.

Photo by Jon Olav Nesvold/AFP/Getty Images.

1. Workers in Denmark are trusted to deliver on whatever their job is.

By and large, people want to work. They want to do a good job. But many people wrongly assume that others are inherently lazy, that work is a reflection of our moral values, and that time equals productivity. (But, in fact, a lot of jobs that exist today aren't even measurably productive.)

So what if, instead of finding ways to pass the time until the clock hits 5 p.m., we just did what we had to do for work and then called it a day? What if you were actually empowered to take personal responsibility into your own hands rather than relying on the threats of a manager lurking in the corner making sure you put in the physical time at a desk?

That's what Denmark does. As Russell writes that one of her Danish friends explained to her, "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." Maybe that's how they get so much stuff done?

Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.

2. Family is obviously important, but in Danish culture, people are actually encouraged to value their families — and everyone else respects it.

According to Russell's experience, it's totally normal for people in Denmark to list their child care pickups and other family business in their digital calendars for others to see. There shouldn't be any shame in prioritizing family. (And if you don't have a family? You deserve the same freedom.) Also in Denmark, child care is tax-deductible, and the state provides maid services and pensions for the elderly.

This emphasis on family extends to the country's educational approach as well. Rather than using an exam-based schooling system, Denmark is "hugely child-centered and this leads to well-rounded and enthusiastic children," according to teacher Stephanie Lambert, another transplant from Britain.

The country's focus on fewer working hours frees up educators to invest in the personalized needs of students as individuals rather than stressing about uniform success. And as a result, Danish children have these same values instilled in them from a young age. It's ingrained in them by the time they join the workforce, and they'll pass these same values down.

Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.

3. Danes also recognize work and play shouldn't be at odds with one another. Everyone benefits from a little R and R — workers and bosses.

More work means more stress, which means more health problems and less getting done. Maybe that's one reason why the Danes spend so much less on health care?

Studies have shown vacations make our brains more creative, which is why vacation days should not be treated as some rare commodity, hoarded like gold for some far-future payoff, or used to cover for other personal matters. People in Denmark receive a minimum five weeks of paid vacation time, and they actually use it — without any fear of shame or social stigma.

It's a simple truth that many Danes recognize, from day laborers to high-end executives: Happier workers are better workers. "We think everyone has a right to be respected, from a CEO to a janitor," Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl told The Local. "We try to teach our children to focus on the good in themselves and others rather than on status or labels."

Photo by William West/AFP/Getty Images.

Denmark's model of work-life balance is proof that time is not the same as productivity, and treating people well is actually better for everyone.

Granted, there are some people who think the Danish secret to happiness is actually just lowered expectations. Yet, being humble, realistic, and appreciative isn't such a bad thing.

Either way, the Danes have proven a healthy moderation of labor and leisure is not only possible, but it's measurably preferable to forcing people to live to work and work themselves to death. Maybe it's time the rest of us followed their example.

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Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

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When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


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Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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