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Stop working. Don’t be a morakker 

The Scandis may not be perfect, says Signe Johansen, but they do have work/life balance nailed. And they’ve even got a name for people who can’t leave work on time: “morakker”, meaning work martyr

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By Signe Johansen on

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Are you feeling frazzled from staying at the office past dinnertime one too many evenings? Harriet Minter’s timely feature about how to leave work on time when you’re rubbish at it sparked a brief social-media exchange between a number of us on this very subject. Having grown up in Scandinavia – a region of Anglophiles who broadly admire the British work ethic and find the determination to achieve success here appealing – the British attitude to working late is regarded as somewhat unreconstructed and odd. Going into the job market, we Scandis are not primed to believe that staying late equals being a better employee. Whereas in the UK, as Harriet writes, working late is seen as “big and clever”, in Scandinavia it’s seen as, well, selfish and stupid.  

That’s a crude exaggeration, of course, but for us this is a question of priorities – what kind of meaningful life can you claim to lead if you spend unnecessarily long hours at work and hardly see your family and friends? What kind of parent are you if you never get to eat a meal with your children or read them a bedtime story? Why sacrifice your long-term health so you might be perceived as a diligent employee? To us, this doesn’t make much sense. And mounting evidence now supports the long-held Scandi suspicion that working late is counter-productive, showing in no uncertain terms that longer hours spent at work do not lead to better work, nor indeed increased productivity. It simply makes people stressed and resentful.

The exchange with Harriet about her feature reminded me of a panel discussion I organised on the way of life in Scandinavia a while back – “How can I channel a Scandi approach to life when I feel guilty leaving the office at 5pm?” asked a member of the audience. Sitting alongside Danish chefs, food writers and restaurateurs, I looked at my fellow panellists and we unanimously exclaimed, “Stop feeling so guilty!”

That may sound glib, but we Scandis are pragmatists. What does guilt achieve? Nothing. So, stop using it as an excuse for making changes in your life. (If you’re a fan of The Killing, you’ll be familiar with another trait of ours – brutal honesty.) Guilt is not something Scandinavians associate with work. We work to live – we definitely do not live to work. You show up, you’re trusted to do your job efficiently and you leave on time.  

A morakker is 'someone who works extra long or hard, thus making his or her colleague look bad for leaving on time'. In a country that prides itself on consensus and fairness, a morakker is, frankly, a total jerk


In Denmark, they even have a word for someone who is a “work martyr”: morakker. According to Bronte Aurell, author and co-founder of ScandiKitchen, a morakker is “someone who works extra long or hard, thus making his or her colleague look bad for leaving on time". In a country that prides itself on consensus and fairness, a morakker is, frankly, a total jerk.  

While I grew up across the Skagerrak in Norway, and we don’t have this word, it resonated immediately. You’re considered the office pariah if you stay later than you need to – the operative word being “need”. There are times when you have to put in some extra hours (and that’s especially the case if you work in hospitality, catering, medical or in the services/retail industry), but the point is you’re not judged as work-shy if you leave on time.

Yet, being a morakker is also tied up with the quintessentially Scandinavian idea of "jantelov" – akin to what you might call “tall poppy syndrome", in which people are compelled to do what’s best for the collective, and individual achievement or ambition is stifled. For those of us who leave Scandinavia, the oppressive nature of jantelov is often cited as a reason. While there is much to admire about our little corner of the globe, this residual hang-up from a more provincial, rural era seems out of step with the modern world. There are ways to build a strong community alongside fostering a healthy sense of individual achievement – the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Scandinavian work practices should be understood within their cultural context: workplace parental leave in the region is considered the most generous and flexible in the world, childcare is more affordable than in the UK and employers – on the whole – treat employees with dignity and respect. It’s that progressive spirit, and the willingness of politicians, employers and citizens to find smart solutions to real problems, that makes the working culture of the region a pretty civilised one. And, while nobody can claim the region is perfect, on balance the evidence gathered suggests that Scandis are happier – or at least more contented with their lot – when it comes to finding a work/life balance.

With Brexit looming, there are serious questions to be asked of politicians and employers about the direction of the British workplace. For now, ask yourself whether, on your deathbed, you’ll be thinking about spreadsheets, wondering if you CCd enough people in those emails or filled with regret that you didn’t create a perfect PowerPoint presentation at 10pm on a Friday night.

I didn’t think so. Don’t be a morakker.

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