This is the first story in our Nordic Way series, that examines life in Scandinavia and beyond.
If you’re aware of global stereotypes about Sweden, working life in the Nordic nation might conjure up images of Scandi-sleek ergonomic offices, numerous breaks for coffee and cinnamon buns (called fika in Swedish), or clocking off early on Fridays to disappear to a lakeside cottage.
While not all workers are afforded such luxuries, figures suggest less than 1% of Swedes work 50 hours a week or more, and citizens are guaranteed at least five weeks’ holiday. There’s a strong culture of flexible working, alongside some of the most generous parental leave and subsidised childcare policies in the world. So it’s not a place you’d imagine finding an exhausted employee struggling to complete workplace tasks or unable to switch off at home.
But the number of people diagnosed with chronic stress-related illnesses – including exhaustion, a condition also referred to as ‘clinical burnout’ – has risen rapidly in recent years. This category of sickness was the most common reason for Swedes to be off work in 2018, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, accounting for more than 20% of sickness benefit cases across all age groups.
Rates have shifted dramatically among young workers, with cases up by 144% for 25-29 year-olds since 2013. Women are more likely than men to be off sick with exhaustion – experts say women still spend more time on household chores regardless of whether they have children or not, are over-represented in stressful, care-based jobs such as nursing and social work – but the rise has been noticeable across both genders and in different sectors.