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Out of Office: Finland’s traditional summer shutdown

The five-week summer holiday period sees offices, factories and businesses shut their doors as much of Finland vacations en masse.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is considered an important part of Finnish society, and every year workers take an extended summer break for rest and relaxation.

The shutdown means that booking an appointment, arranging a meeting, or even receiving a reply to an email between Midsummer and the beginning of August in Finland can be notoriously difficult.

Negative economic impact

In recent years however, there has been a growing debate in Finland about the effect this extended summer break has on the nation’s economy - as productivity levels and competitiveness tend to dip.

Chris Moore moved from his native England to Finland five years ago, and his British perspective - coupled with his experience of working in Finland as an entrepreneur and in the financial sector - provides him with a unique insight into this very Finnish phenomenon.

"Personally I cannot relate to it at all,” says Moore. “In the UK you typically take your vacation period in one-week blocks dotted around the year. And if you happen to request the same time off as a colleague, you normally end up being told to change it."

Moore established and ran many start-up companies during his time as an entrepreneur, but found the summer to be a frustratingly slow time for business, which often stunted the growth of a fledgling company. He believes this has a far-reaching effect on the Finnish economy.

"During July and even August, you cannot get any decisions or sales made. Everyone sticks their 'Out of Office' on and disappears to the cottage," says Moore. "So it has a direct impact on goods and services bought and sold both domestically and internationally."

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Rauman Poroholman uimaranta.
Many Finnish residents activate an Out of Office message before disconnecting from work for several weeks. Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

The tourism industry in particular faces significant staffing challenges during the summer, and a subsequent impact on profits. A recent report by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment suggested a small change to the timing of school summer holidays could lead to a 200-million-euro boost to tourism sector revenues.

According to Matti Roitto, a PhD researcher of history at the University of Jyväskylä, this is an area which requires further analysis.

“Every year we see stories in the tabloid press about foreigners coming to Finland, finding everything closed, no place to eat, no services available,” Roitto says. “So there is a debate that we are letting tourists down by not offering the very best Finland has to offer during the high season.”

Harvest moon and haymaking

Although the tradition may be considered an inconvenience by the modern-day tourist, its roots can be found deep in Finland’s agricultural past.

“One of the most common explanations is that July is heinäkuu, which refers to hay-making,” Roitto says. “People went to the hay fields to gather and make hay for the winter.”

The process of producing hay was such a huge collective operation, and so crucial to survival during winter months, that it often required the efforts of the entire community - which therefore necessitated the closure of other businesses or the suspension of other tasks.

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Heinätalkoot Tuomarilassa.
Making hay while the sun shines at Helsinki's Tuomarinkylä Manor. Image: Yle/Juha Kivioja

Even during Finland’s early industrial era - when factories began to appear in towns and villages - people would still travel to the countryside to work in the fields, beginning a tradition that endures to this day. Roitto explains that - although over time the period gradually became less about working and more about relaxing - the tradition of travelling to the countryside, of being in natural surroundings, and of spending time with family has remained.

“It has left a collective identity mark in people’s minds, that this is the time when we get together,” he says.

Meanwhile collective haying remains common in many parts of countryside, serving as a social get-together with food and drinks served to volunteers. The practice is even popular among city-dwellers. For instance, Helsinki's Tuomarinkylä Manor attracts up to 250 people each year to help out. This year's event was on 5 July.

A time to wander around aimlessly

Roitto also offers a second explanation for the annual shutdown. Historically, July has been the warmest and sunniest month in Finland, and Finns are determined to soak up as much sun as possible after enduring the long months of winter.

“We may have had some horrible summers in recent years but people still always hunt for the sun, and statistically in Finland July is the best month,” Roitto explains. “After stressing through the cold, hard, dark winter people want time to enjoy the best Finnish summer has to offer.”

Roitto believes Finns value the importance of taking a break from the “pressure of having to be in a certain place at a certain time”, and he particularly enjoys the atmosphere the summer break creates.

“The Germans have a word for it, bummel, which means to wander around aimlessly. I think that’s the best part of Finnish summer.”

Despite the growing debate, Finland's summer shutdown tradition - and the irresistible enticement to simply go on the bummel - look set to continue for many years.

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