Elon Musk could learn a thing or two from Sweden about a healthy work-life balance

Johan Attby
The Tesla boss claims you should work 80-100 hours a week to change the world (Source: Getty)

Last month, Elon Musk issued another controversial decree from his Twitter parapet. Appealing to potential applicants to his various companies, Musk made the claim that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”.

When pressed for details on what would constitute an earth-altering amount of weekly work, he recommended “80 sustained, peaking above 100 at times”.

The tweet led to discussions around the importance of work-life balance. Chief executives took to their blogs, either to echo the Tesla chief’s view and promote their own 5am gym routines, or to wax lyrical about ping-pong tables and the need to focus on looking after your staff.

It’s a divisive debate. On the one hand, we live in an era of greater understanding when it comes to employee wellbeing.

The relationship between sound mental health and professional results is increasingly well-documented. Out of this has stemmed constructive policies such as flexible working hours, increased parental leave, and paid sick days.

On the other hand, in the last 50 years Silicon Valley has changed the world more than any other city. Its inhabitants set the pace when it comes to work intensity.

Burning the candle at both ends in the name of tech evangelism has disrupted every aspect of our lives.

Perhaps the rest of the world does need to look at taking a leaf out of the tech hub’s e-book.

I occupy a privileged vantage point in this debate: I worked in Silicon Valley for years, before returning to my native Sweden to set up the social media network for anglers, Fishbrain.

Sweden is often held up as the epitome of work-life balance, so these might seem like ultimately contrasting business cultures. In one corner, American individualism, in the other, Nordic social democracy.

But in reality, there’s a lot that Musk could learn from the Nordic model.

Swedes may work 100 hours a week when important deadlines loom, but they also understand the essential notion of quality over quantity.

One of the clearest examples of this is holiday. Swedes typically take at least a month of annual leave every summer. To Musk and his workaholic comrades, this must seem indulgent and inefficient.

But the reality of the Swedish vacation is that it’s good for business.

Rather than logging off entirely, Swedes use their absence from the office to think in new ways, to reflect from distance on the day-to-day pressures of a working week. This peace of mind provides clear headspace to genuinely think, devise ideas, and work out high-level strategies.

The US equivalent – on which Brits still remain divided – is a policy of unlimited holidays. Seemingly generous, the concept allows staff to take as many days leave as they would like. But this is a fallacy.

Rather than providing a liberating working culture, studies find that this policy actually leads to a net decrease in time taken off. Vacation becomes synonymous with guilt, and staff end up working all year for fear of appearing uncommitted.

These differing approaches when it comes to holiday are emblematic of the debate as a whole. And I have to say, the Nordic culture of trusting your staff to work efficiently and be dedicated is more effective than any arbitrary requirement of the number of hours employees should work.

Trusting your team this much of course carries risks, but if you are an inspiring leader running a company with a clear and powerful vision – as Musk clearly aims to be – employees shouldn’t need timesheets to aim for. Working becomes fun and the hours (yes, even 80 of them) begin to fly by.

After all, even a Tesla needs to recharge its batteries.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.