Why are the Dutch the happiest workers in Europe?

Lucy Hattersley

Wednesday 11 February 2015

In the Netherlands, workers are officially the happiest workforce in Europe. But what’s the secret to ‘going Dutch’, and can we build happier workplaces by following their lead?

According to research by the iOpener Institute, Dutch employees are the happiest in Europe. Workers in the Netherlands spent 57.2 per cent of their time happy, far more than the Swiss (36.8 per cent), Italians (37.2 per cent) or Germans (37.4 per cent). British workers fared slightly better, with iOpener reporting that Brits spend 42.4 per cent of their time happy at work.

While curmudgeonly workers are to be found in every office and on shop floor, it’s obviously unfortunate that most European workers seemingly spend the majority of their time feeling unhappy in the workplace.

Workforce: happiness and performance

Is a CEO responsible for happiness? Certainly, no CEO boasts of running an unhappy company, but is it worth taking time to provide a joyous working environment? Well, put simply, it seems clear that happiness does affect the bottom line.

“The data we’ve gathered from 32,000 respondents shows that employees who are happiest at work report being ‘on task’ 80 per cent of their working week,” says Jessica Pryce-Jones, joint founder and partner of iOpener. This performance compares to the unhappiest workers, who spend just 40 per cent of their time on task.

Digging further into the research reveals that, as compared to unhappy workers, the happiest employees take only one-tenth of the sick leave; are six times as engaged; intend to stay twice as long; and are twice as productive.

The iOpener research comes on the back of numerous scientific research programmes into worker happiness. ‘Do Happy Workers Work Harder?’ (Michael Argyle, 1989) revealed “modestly positive correlations with productivity, absenteeism and labour turnover.” Argyle also noted: “these correlations tend to be stronger among white-collar workers.”

Casting back even further, it seems that it’s not just productivity and time-keeping that improves with happiness. There is less sabotage, stealing, doing work badly on purpose, and spreading rumours or gossip to cause trouble (Mangoine and Quinn, 1975).

Recreating Dutch happiness in the workplace

The notion of ‘happiness’ is a rather flaky term, and we can perhaps forgive CEOs for not automatically announcing a happiness strategy. Apart from anything else, just how do you go about measuring happiness, let alone improving it?

More importantly: why are the Dutch so much happier than the Germans, British or Italian? Should CEOs learn anything from the Dutch approach to the workplace and implement a similar strategy.

Measuring happiness in the workplace

iOpener measures happiness by breaking it down into key components such as recognition, respect, and time on task; as well as negative indicators such as the likelihood of leaving or sick days. The iOpener People and Performance Questionnaire (iPPQ) gives a good idea of how the Work Index 2014 was created.

This data is used to create five key drivers that iOpener claims underpins happiness at work: Contribution, Conviction, Culture, Commitment and Confidence.

Why is a Dutch worker happier than you?

So the science and methodology appears to stack up, which brings us back to the question of “why the Dutch?”

One thing’s for sure, it’s not about money. Dutch workers have a higher-than-average salary, but Dutch pay is lower than the UK (Source: Statistics NetherlandsONS) and much lower than Switzerland or Denmark. Tellingly, however, Dutch pay isn’t much better than in German (a country that reported much lower levels of happiness).

Researching the Dutch work/life balance reveals more differences. The Dutch report a shorter working week with a four-day week being commonplace. Partly, this shorter working week is due to legislation: the European Working Time Directive imposes a 48-hour maximum working week that applies to every member state except the United Kingdom and Malta. Dutch law takes things a step further: nobody is allowed to work more nine hours a day or 45 hours a week, and no more than 2,080 hours a year.

Dutch-style holidays create happy workers

Dutch companies also take an interesting approach to holidays. Vacation time is fairly standard with the rest of Europe (Dutch companies must provide a minimum of 20 days annually for holidays, with most employers allowing an extra five).

Where things get radical is the concept of ‘Vakantiegeld’ (vacation money). Instead of Christmas bonuses, most Dutch companies pay an allowance in the summer to cover the cost of the holiday (this is on top of the paid leave). Vakantiegeld is set to 8 per cent of gross wages and is typically paid at the end of May.

Paying a summer bonus, instead of the traditional (in most of Europe) winter bonus may be a driver behind Dutch worker happiness. If you want happy workers, giving them a bonus to spend on a vacation may make more sense than giving them the money to spend on presents.

So how do they do it? Although there are certain clear contributory factors – such as shorter working weeks and a more savvy time to hand out bonuses – in truth, there is no silver bullet. By scoring highly in iOpener’s five key drivers, this suggests that the Dutch have simply succeeded in improving their working experience as a whole.

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