Unwinding in the open air is so ingrained in the culture, some companies build it into the working week. But is it under threat in an increasingly global and digital society?

It’s minus two degrees celsius. Frost-tipped grass lines the hiking trails snaking through the forest in Ursvik, a Stockholm suburb on the edge of the Swedish capital’s technology and science hub, Kista.

Yet, despite the frigid temperature, there’s a steady footfall of walkers and joggers out and about during their lunch break.

“We do it all year round. You get so much energy from it,” says Tina Holm, a scientist at the Nordic headquarters of pharmaceutical and cosmetics firm Perrigo, who is here with her company’s running club. “We have a saying in Sweden ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’.”

A passion for nature cuts to the heart of what Scandinavians call friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv). The expression literally translates as ‘open-air living’

“It’s a very big part of our lives, to be able to see the greenery and the water and the forests,” adds Bo Wahlund, a packaging developer who organises the group. “It strengthens our mental and physical abilities.”

Their passion for nature cuts to the heart of what Scandinavians call friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv). The expression literally translates as “open-air living” and was popularised in the 1850s by the Norwegian playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen, who used the term to describe the value of spending time in remote locations for spiritual and physical wellbeing.

Today, the phrase is used more broadly by Swedes, Norwegians and Danes to explain anything from lunchtime runs in the forest, to commuting by bike (or on cross-country skis when the snow falls) to joining friends at a lakeside sauna (often followed by a chilly dip in the water) or simply relaxing in a mountain hut. The concept is also linked closely to allmansrätten, the right to roam. Scandinavian countries all have similar laws which allow people to walk or camp practically anywhere, as long as they show respect for the surrounding nature, wildlife and locals.

The great outdoors

“The history of outdoor life in the Nordics is long and really incorporated with the culture, since we have a lot of land and a small population,” explains Angeliqa Mejstedt, who runs one of the region’s largest outdoor blogs, Vandringsbloggen, from the Swedish city of Västerås.

“Even after we became more urbanised we had this longing to get back to nature and for the last 100 years a lot of voluntary organisations like the Scouts and the tourist boards have organised and educated people about how and why to spend time outdoors,” says the writer, who also works as a consultant advising businesses and new immigrants on the history and benefits of friluftsliv.

Their club is able to meet every week, thanks to a company policy that blocks 90 minutes out of employees’ calendars every Wednesday

In Sweden alone, a country of 10 million people, there are 25 non-profit associations anchored to friluftsliv, with 1.7 million memberships spread across 9,000 local and regional clubs. Research for Statistics Sweden, the government’s number-crunching agency, suggests that around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. More than half of the population have access to a summer house in the countryside or on the coast.

Many Scandinavian employers also incentivise staff to spend time outside during their working hours. The shiny activewear sported by pharmaceutical workers like Wahlund and Holme hint these are people who schedule exercise without any help from their bosses. But their club is able to meet every week thanks to a company policy that blocks 90 minutes out of employees’ calendars every Wednesday. No-one is forced to exercise, but a majority of staff choose to, with many making a beeline for the surrounding woodland.

Wahlund finds it funny when “cool companies like Apple or Google” make headlines for testing out similar initiatives, noting that “in Sweden it’s regular, there’s a lot of companies doing it”.

Deciding when to work

With flexible hours already commonplace in Scandinavia, thanks to policies encouraging both parents to participate in family life, many businesses are also giving employees the chance to work around their passions – including the great outdoors – more regularly.

“We have a very free work environment and believe that our employees work best when they decide when to work,” says Jakob Palmers, the co-founder of Graphiq, a design agency based in the Norwegian capital, Oslo. “That means people can go and experience friluftsliv when the sun is up and work when it's dark”.

The company has also piloted holding meetings outdoors at a nearby pond and plans to do so more regularly when warmer weather returns. “You get a different perspective as soon as you get out of the building," Palmers says.

There are even tax breaks for firms that incentivise friluftsliv: firms in Sweden and Finland can subsidise employees’ sports activities or equipment, while some Finnish businesses are starting to pay compensation to employees if they cycle or walk to work.

But while all this implies that Scandinavia’s obsession with friluftsliv is as deep-rooted as a Nordic forest, there are signs that things are starting to shift.

Ibsen may have been able to clear his mind while out walking in the countryside but the aspect of friluftsliv that champions feeling “remote” feels less relevant in a region made up of the most digitally advanced economies in Europe.

Fast broadband and widespread 3G or 4G mobile coverage ensure there’s pretty much nowhere that phone calls, emails, or Slack notifications can’t get through. Meanwhile globalisation means that growing numbers of Nordic companies need to stay in contact with colleagues and customers operating in different time zones.

I’m scheduling my ‘friluftsliv’ now. In the old days, you just went out – Peter Hellberg

Sweden’s largest union, Unionen, reports that while some embrace the freedom to work or check messages “wherever, whenever”, rising numbers of members report feeling stressed as a result of being unable to unwind during weekends and holidays in the same way they did in the past.

“We are a hardworking people, we are a very loyal people and that loyalty means that some of us work a little too much in inappropriate situations – on sailboats and in summer cottages,” says Peter Hellberg, a vice chairman at the union.

“I’m scheduling my ‘friluftsliv’ now. In the old days, you just went out. Now I have to see ‘oh I have time for my walk in the nature on Friday at 5 o'clock’,” he says.

The region’s start-up scene has resulted in a new generation of entrepreneurs unsure ‘when you are allowed to stop working’

He’s also concerned that a boom in the region’s start-up scene has resulted in a new generation of entrepreneurs unsure when they are allowed to stop working. “Ten thousand of our members are self-employed. They don’t have anyone to talk to, to reason with, to realise when they are reaching the limit”.

However, others argue that younger Scandinavians are simply discovering new methods to switch off and recoup energy, albeit on a more short-term basis.

“I think the real crisis for friluftsliv is that my generation, we don’t want to sit for long periods of time in the countryside doing nothing,” says Hjalmar Nilssonne, CEO of Swedish green energy start-up Watty. “We want to do exciting stuff, we want to travel, we want to go to see new places, meet new people”.

Meditation, silent retreats and even psychedelic drugs are, within the start-up scene at least, becoming popular alternatives to more traditional outdoor pastimes

When it comes to relaxation he says meditation, silent retreats and even psychedelic drugs are, within the start-up scene at least, becoming popular alternatives to more traditional outdoor pastimes.

“You have this interesting sort-of counter-culture developing. So I think maybe for us, our generation – in the big cities at least – might find other ways of achieving something similar to friluftsliv, maybe more with a spiritual note.”

Swedish data confirm that the amount of time young people are active outdoors has dipped slightly over the past three decades, with around 25% now spending time in the countryside or forest at least once a week, compared to 29% in the early 1980s.

If you have time to watch Game of Thrones on Netflix, you also have time to be outdoors. It’s a matter of making choices - Angeliqa Mejstedt

But Angeliqa Mejstedt insists that the success of her blog, and the more than 100 hikes she’s organised in 23 locations over the past year, are a sign that friluftsliv continues to inspire young Scandinavians and that the concept has found new ways to thrive in a more digital world.

“The more screen time we have, the more we need to get back to basics. But I think that the digital area can help us in many ways, it makes it easier to plan adventures for example with modern apps,” she says. “I’ve also found a lot of mindfulness in taking pictures because it makes me add more value to being outdoors and I think it could be the same for other people as well.”

She’s also convinced that while other countries might not have the same history or infrastructure when it comes to promoting friluftsliv, it’s still a concept that can be quickly exported.

“If you have time to watch Game of Thrones on Netflix, you also have time to be outdoors. It’s a matter of making choices,” she argues. “And being able to see something green really adds value to everyday life”.

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