Last reviewed 17 March 2017

Hygge — pronounced “hoo-ga” — is the art of enjoying everyday life, credited with making the Danes the world’s happiest nation and now officially a thing in the UK. Vicky Powell talks to Karen Matovu from the wellbeing company Validium about how hygge can be used at work to increase happiness among an organisation’s people.

The word hygge recently made it into the Collins English Dictionary — defined as the practice of creating cosy and congenial environments that promote emotional wellbeing — and last Christmas no less than nine new books about how to live the hygge lifestyle were launched.

The good news for employers is that happy employees are not only more helpful, engaged and motivated, but also more creative, calmer and less likely to call in sick.

As interest in hygge grows this winter, managers can use the concept to spread a little happiness and wellbeing across their own workforce. Karen Matovu, Clinical Services and Development Manager, says there are five key principles to apply for using hygge at work.

  1. Focus on the positive.

    Although hygge has been presented in the media as a cosy way of life, that’s mostly concerned with snuggling under blankets with hot chocolate and eating pastries by candlelight with friends and family, it’s much more than that. It’s a way of life that’s closely aligned to the principles of positive psychology and is as much about employees being kind to themselves as it is about connecting with each other.

    When friends come together to enjoy hygge, talking about potentially stressful topics is rare. Instead the focus is on enjoying the positive, something everyone can benefit from in the workplace. Not least because being in touch with the positive has also been proven to make more intellectual capacity available and make people more focused and creative.

    Unfortunately, human beings have an inbuilt negativity bias, which means that even when employees have successfully achieved seven or eight things, there is a tendency to focus on the one thing that wasn’t achieved. The result is that many staff members can leave work each day feeling overwhelmed and anxious about what they haven’t done, rather than pleased about what was achieved.

    A really powerful, hygge-inspired exercise is therefore to encourage employees to make a note of three positive things that have happened at the end of each day, even if this is just a nice conversation they had or getting a seat on the train. Managers could also ask everyone to share their highlight of the week whenever they come together for a meeting.

    Doing this regularly re-programmes the brain to start focusing on and looking for the positive, all of which has been proven to not just boost general happiness levels, but also resilience to the negative effects of stress and anxiety.

    By only allowing positive conversation during the long, dark winter months, the Danes are in effect protecting and defending themselves from feeling down by instead celebrating the reasons that exist to feel happy and joyful; something all staff could benefit from in the workplace from time to time.

  2. Self-compassion.

    Instead of constantly chasing achievement, hygge is about taking time to create a sense of personal contentment — whether it’s fully disconnecting from work after leaving the office and fully enjoying the respite that provides, having a proper lunch hour or taking the reward of a proper break after completing a task, to switch off and recharge or do something enjoyable for 10 minutes.

    For the company’s Hygge Day, managers could encourage employees to be kind to themselves by rewarding themselves with a proper break after completing each task or going home on time so they can fully recharge with friends or family.

    Obviously that’s easier said than done with busy lives and a culture of overwork, so managers might need to give staff “permission” to be kind to themselves in this way by asking leaders across the organisation to role-play positive behaviours, such as leaving work on time and not reconnecting through email until the next morning. Another idea is to run a competition that rewards the best examples of employees being kind to themselves, such as giving themselves an achievable deadline, instead of pushing themselves past their personal limits.

    Hygge isn’t about overindulgence or slacking off, but about employees treating themselves well by not punishing themselves. The focus is on people being kind and fair to themselves, and others, treating themselves and their colleagues as a good friend would.

  3. Live in the moment.

    Constant multitasking has become a way of life, but a major principle of hygge is about living fully in the moment, a concept also known as mindfulness. Mindfulness courses often use the “raisin exercise” which involves looking at a raisin for 2–3 minutes, really taking in its texture and roughness and colour, before slowly eating it, moving it around in the mouth over a 10-minute period, to get the full depth of experience.

    Hygge encourages people to relish each moment in the same way, which has been proven time and time again to be incredibly beneficial to wellbeing. This is particularly difficult to do at work because of the way in which workers are constantly exposed to distractions, be it the constant flow of emails, interruptions from colleagues or clients who want immediate answers to things that could perhaps wait or the experience of bolting down food, without really tasting it, because of being glued to the computer at the same time.

    It’s been said that if there is only one principle of hygge managers should embrace, this is it. In practical terms, managers can invite employees to give up multi-tasking for the day by immersing themselves in just one activity at a time. Staff can be helped to resist the urge to constantly check emails by switching off their email auto-alert for the day.

  4. Find meaning.

    Another fundamental aspect of hygge is about boosting energy levels by focusing on doing the things that an employee really enjoys.

    Although employees may not be able to access all the things they love doing while at work, they can find more meaning in work by thinking about which activities inspire them because they connect with their personal and emotional values in some way. Those values could be the desire to share knowledge, make things fair or support others as examples.

    Managers should encourage employees to think about which parts of their jobs give them the most satisfaction and energy and ask them if there are more ways for them to do things that connect with their underlying values. This isn’t just good for their mental health, it’s also good for the business.

    Research by the Corporate Executive Board, a member based advisory company, shows an emphasis on strengths in appraisals is linked to a 36% improvement in performance, whereas an emphasis on weaknesses is linked to a 27% decline.

    As the Danes know, the simple fact is employees are more motivated, energised and likely to succeed when they focus on the things that they’re naturally gifted at and want to do, than when they try to force themselves to do things they don’t really enjoy.

  5. Connect with others.

    Humans are built to be social. It’s when people grow isolated from others that they get into trouble and become much more likely to experience low mood.

    Some people might argue that snuggling solo under a blanket and watching a box set with a hot chocolate is staying true to the concept of hygge — in creating a cosy environment and showing self-compassion — but most believe true hygge is about people coming together to share an experience.

    While snuggling under blankets together might be a stretch too far for some colleagues, there’s much more that employers can do to encourage employees to come together, from creating shared spaces for eating together — instead of in isolation at individual desks — to rewarding people for helping and supporting each other. Some employers are even going so far as to hold days where employees are encouraged to carry out random acts of kindness for each other, such as making a cup of tea for someone outside their normal tea round, to sharing their skillset with someone needing help in another part of the business.

    The more employees reach out and connect with each other, the happier and more resilient they will become to the effects of stress and trauma. Plus, the more team members collectively show kindness to one another, the more inclined they will become to want to show kindness to one another. That’s because the positive feelings generated release an endorphin that switches on the caring side of the brain. All of which makes it easier for the organisation and its people to live all the other principles of hygge as well.