Denmark has the best work-life balance. Here’s why

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” goes the line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But four centuries after the play was written, the analysis couldn’t be less accurate. According to the OECD Better Life report, Danes have a better work-life balance than any other country surveyed.

Only 2% of employees regularly work very long hours, which isn’t much when you compare it with the OECD average of 13%. Instead, they spend around two-thirds of their day (16 hours) eating, sleeping and indulging in leisurely pursuits.

It’s not just the workers: Danes rank above average in an intimidatingly long list of areas: environmental quality, civic engagement, education, skills, jobs, earnings, well-being, personal security and social connections.

That last area, social support networks, is key: 96% of people report having friends or relatives they can count on in times of trouble, compared with the 88% across other OECD countries.


Air quality in Denmark is also better than the OECD average (in scientific terms that translates as 11.1 micrograms of PM2.5 pollution per cubic metre, as opposed to 14.05 elsewhere).

Danes are unusually engaged in the political process – voter turnout stands at 86% and is among the highest in the OECD. They’re also well educated: 80% of adults aged 25-64 have completed upper-secondary education. That’s four percentage points higher than the OECD average.

Work-life balance

According to the Danes themselves, the key is to prioritize life over work. And when they are at work, they enjoy a high degree of flexibility. They can often choose when they start their working day and have the option of working from home. The lunch break is often at a designated time each day, enabling colleagues to interact and eat together, thus enabling them to leave their desks. There is a minimum five weeks’ paid holiday for all earners.

However, working fewer hours doesn’t mean they do less. Researchers at the OECD found that overly long working days actually reduce productivity. 

Danish lifestyle choices are reflected in their attitudes, as recorded by the survey. When you look at what is important to Danish citizens, jobs and income are much lower down the list than health, education, the environment and work-life balance. 

Image: OECD

According to one Dane, the nation’s attitude to money differs from that of other countries: 

“Money is not as important in the social life here as, for example, Britain and America. We probably spend our money differently. We don’t buy big houses or big cars, we like to spend our money on socializing with others,” says Professor of Economics Christian Bjørnskov from Aarhus Business School. 

There’s one significant trade-off: Danes pay high taxes. But according to a recent Bloomberg report, they don’t mind. That’s because those taxes go towards paying for the country’s welfare state, which they treasure.

It’s no surprise then, that the Danes report the highest levels of life satisfaction of all surveyed countries. 

Denmark was also ranked first in the World Happiness Report 2013, third in the World Happiness Report 2015, and first again in the World Happiness Report 2016 Update.

Image: OECD

Is there anything Denmark doesn’t do well?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, no country is in entirely perfect health. Apart from anti-diabetic medication, Danes consume more pharmaceuticals than the OECD average, including antidepressants.

Image: OECD

The OECD says that Denmark could be doing more to help its low-skilled and low-wage workers. The gap between rich and poor is high – the top 20% of the population earns nearly four times as much as the bottom 20%. 

Denmark needs to lure more skilled workers to its shores if it’s to prop up its economic growth, particularly in the areas of engineering and science.

American cities are conspicuously absent from the top 10 with San Francisco the highest-ranked U.S. city at 39th. Portland and Seattle are also among the top 50, but overall it must be said that U.S. metropolises aren’t particularly bike-friendly. Whether this has to do with the fact that most Americans still commute to work by car or whether Americans take the car because of lackluster bike infrastructure is a classic chicken/egg problem, it’s hard to tell which was there first. It seems safe to say however, that using bicycles for everyday transportation is more deeply engrained culturally in Europe than it is in the United States, which is why it’s no surprise that European cities dominate the ranking.

  • These are the cities that are the most cycle-friendly, according to the Bicycle Cities Index 2019.
  • These rankings are based on factors including weather, bicycle usage, crime & safety, infrastructure, sharing and events.
  • 9 out of the top 10 cities are in Europe, with Hangzhou (China) the only non-European city near the top of the ranking.
  • The Dutch city of Utrecht is the world’s most bicycle-friendly city. That’s according to the Bicycle Cities Index 2019, a study conducted by digital insurance company Coya, for which the conditions for cycling in 90 cities across the globe were analyzed based on 16 indicators across six main categories: weather, bicycle usage, crime & safety, infrastructure, sharing and events. Utrecht is joined by eight other European cities in the top 10, with Hangzhou (China) the only non-European city near the top of the ranking.