Once a villain, now a hero... Swedish Summer Vacation

The first time I really encountered Swedish summer vacation, I wanted to strangle it. 

It was the summer of 2010, I was winding down my 10 years of living in Santa Barbara, and I found out that my Swedish student visa was likely not going to process in time for me to make my scheduled flight to Sweden start my masters program. My application was sitting on an empty desk in a Migration Board office somewhere in Sweden where no one but an intern was actually working. 


My stress those couple of weeks as I dealt with this was sky high. I expressed frustration to friends and family about the lack of logic embedded in the "take a few weeks off all around the same time" Swedish summer culture. It seemed like it was a recipe for ineptitude and a mountain of problems for anything having to do with customer service or business in general. Must be nice for Swedes, but several weeks off at a time... isn't that sort of lazy? 


Eventually, with the help of a Swedish friend's stepdad who called a friend of a friend of a friend to reach that lonely Migration Board intern, my passport with the visa in it was sent back to me in California literally 3 hours before my flight to Sweden. Within 36 hours I was laying in a jetlagged fog by the Baltic seaside in the far north of Sweden, breathing in the pine tree air and out the stress that a just-barely-made-it international move had caused. The Swedes around me jumped in and out of the water, periodically checking on their salmon smoking away by the trees, and sipping away at their pale ales, closing out the days of their long lazy summer vacation. 




Here is where I went. Salmon smoke is in the air. 

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Swedes are guaranteed five weeks of vacation. Some are offered more by their employers. This does not include the many paid holidays. I know that vacation time in Europe sounds extravagant to any American. And considering that Americans tend to take no more than a week at a time, the predominant practice of taking three or more weeks off in the middle of summer, as many Swedes do, can sound overly luxurious on a personal level and problematic at a professional one. I know that some of my friends and family in the States think I hardly ever work. I don't blame them for thinking this, when the average number of total paid vacation and holiday days for an American is 16 (and none of them guaranteed by federal law). Among developed nations, only Japanese workers have fewer. 

 "America's War on Vacation, By the Numbers" is one of countless articles, among many other dialogues and forums, examining this. The key thing to understand is that the U.S. government does not legislate this area, and when paid holidays and vacation time are in the picture, it is because of the company policies or in some cases, states and local government laws. Therefore, is still the case that 91% of full-time U.S. workers are entitled to vacation as part of their compensation, but there are big variances between small business and corporate policies, full time and part time workers, low wage and high earners. 

Here's a visual to really drive it home:


Americans can hardly the point the finger at the lack of government policies for enabling vacation, when they aren't taking the vacation their employers are giving them. A
bout 57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of 2011, with studies showing anywhere from 2 to 11 days as the average amount of days not used. Hours worked per week in America are longer than other developed more wealthy countries apart from South Korea and Japan. 

This AskMen article articulates the vacation issue in the U.S. quite well, regarding why the country is hesitant to establish government intervention, and the benefits we may gain from that but also the very significant negatives. "We are at an extreme end of the work-life balance spectrum. And to many, the end is the wrong one...The standard of living in the U.S. may be the highest in the industrial world in terms of monetary compensation, but what about family time, personal time and stress levels? Where do U.S. workers rank with their European counterparts in these categories?"  

If some European economies are suffering (which by the way Sweden's is relatively not), it's not because of three weeks off in the height of summer, it's other issues. On a travel website article about vacation time and whether Europeans have it better, there were the following comments from Americans:

"As an American expat in Sweden, the biggest difference I've noticed here though when it comes to vacation time versus the US, is the mentality. My boss takes a lot of vacation and so does his boss. No one is scared to take too much time or made to feel guilty about it. In Sweden, even CEOs encourage vacation time. Swedes realize that a proper work-life balance makes happy people. And happy people make good employees."

"Companies here in Europe practically shut down for the last 3 weeks of August with the perspective that one needs a vacation to rejuvenate. Heck, even the egg vendor at the market takes a month vacation."

The U.S. work culture "permeates both our day-to-day family choices and our national laws, creating an up-and-down feedback loop of industriousness." Americans find it stressful to take vacations. They don't want to deal with the work that has piled up once they are back. They are addicted to being involved, answering emails, and/or expected to be even when on a beach in Mexico. They don't take more than a week of vacation at a time, on average. And many suffer because of all this, in ways that even hinder all the productivity.

But the egg vendor, the Migration board employees, the CEOs that you can't get in touch with during July...lazy? Yes. In the very best and most healthy way. 


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This summer, my fourth one that I have experienced in Sweden, was the first one in which I felt the best possible effect from the extended Swedish summer vacation. I'd been far away from Sweden on a beach for more than a week. It took awhile, but I remember the afternoon when I had arrived, mentally, at a place beyond laziness. A place beyond pleasure. It was just, stillness. A mind blissfully empty of the details of the work project I'd barely finished before the trip. Empty of the thoughts of the to-do list I'd need to get back to when I was back in Stockholm. Empty of the thoughts of the self-improvement I wanted to undertake in the fall. Empty of the thoughts of that sweet boy I wasn't going to be visiting after this trip after all. Empty of even thoughts about where we'd eat dinner at sunset that night. Empty of anything besides the most minute detail of that present moment... that afternoon I remember realizing that I'd been staring at the salt streaks that had dried in patterns between the blond hairs of my arm, staring and staring, for half an hour. I attempted to bring back all the thoughts, but, they weren't there, they had truly retreated. I wondered if maybe I should listen to music... I hadn't done that in days. I always listen to music. But I didn't. I stayed still. I realized later that my mind probably hadn't been that still, as it was for much of the next couple days, for over a decade. I can't tell you how much lasting good that did me.

I've been wishing ever since that more of my friends and family in the States could experience the same. There is not always stillness in a Swedish summer vacation, but it is evident to me that people around me, in social and business life, are getting away, at least a couple times a year but especially in summer, from demands, thoughts, and stress, in a way that lends them more mental ease year-round. There's a lot I would trade (and in fact, I have) for more of this.

That particular sandy beach, July 2013

Comments

  1. Here here. It's one of the things I appreciate most in living in Sweden. That, and the fact that even when working, they seem to be much more relaxed and work-ife-balance-y. I love it.

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  2. Thanks for this post. I'm planning to move to Sweden next year, and this is definitely one of the reasons why. Work life balance and employee benefits are amazing in Sweden! :)

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