Awareness of equality issues is expected to be on the rise at Finnish workplaces in a whole new way this decade, the keywords being diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This compels us to take another look at sauna events as a cultural custom that should be inclusive. But how to successfully convert the traditional men's or women's sauna events to something that includes everyone?
Mixing sauna and work is not a novel phenomenon in Finland. For example, president Kekkonen famously entertained political guests and colleagues at his sauna club, and companies have organized sauna events for a long time. But what if someone does not feel comfortable in a situation where they're expected to go to the sauna with their co-workers?
I set off to find out what people who identify as women in the IT sector think about sauna events at the workplace. I spoke with 38 persons who identify as a woman about their experiences with going to the sauna with their colleagues. We then utilized these comments in formulating a sauna etiquette for our company.
The experiences shared were riddled with feelings, both positive and negative. For some, sauna is an amazing Finnish experience, and for others mixing sauna with work was unheard of. Nonetheless, most of the experiences included some negative nuance, and when looking at those more closely a common nominator was found: feeling left out.
The feeling of being left out was stemming from multiple sources, such as:
Separate groups for the sauna. The concept of “sauna shifts” (first one group of people, then a second, possibly a third) can be positive and provide a feeling of security. But it can also be a painful experience, and make others feel left out of a specific group. In the worst case, the organizer or management has divided people into two groups where the other group consists of only one person. That person is then waiting outside the sauna alone while the others are chatting and engaging with each other in the sauna.
Others had their own reasons to skip sauna events. Those reasons may relate to culture, religion, values, or perhaps not feeling welcome to the sauna. It was highlighted that even if the decision was the person's own, the same feeling of being left out remained.
The third factor behind feeling like an outsider was having no alternative activity organized simultaneously with the sauna. Also, the plainness of facilities, like missing products or tools (for example a hair dryer, body lotion, hair gel) that some may need, evoked the feeling.
Some felt very strongly: sauna and work should not be mixed.
Things to take into account
If you are organizing a sauna event at the workplace, here are some tips to make the events more comfortable for all participants:
Conversational and inclusive planning Make sure that everyone is invited and there is open discussion on feelings about the dress code, facilities and sauna in general. This requires the company to work towards psychological safety. If the employees don't feel like they could openly discuss their feelings, they cannot discuss the sauna honestly either. If the group involves people who are not familiar with Finnish sauna, the Finnish sauna culture should be introduced to them beforehand. For example Saunologia's instructions for Finnish Sauna may be helpful.
Dress code Having a dress code may lower the threshold for some people to join the sauna. Nudity may feel completely natural to others but make others feel uncomfortable. Having swimsuits, swimming trunks, towels and robes available may help some people feel more comfortable. Bring up the discussion of the dress code well before the bathing, and make sure that the team mates may also comment in private (this helps remove the fear of publicly opposing others). You can also utilize tools that make it possible to share opinions anonymously, such as Polly or Google Forms.
Zero tolerance for harassment Communicate that there is absolute zero tolerance for any kind of harassment, and that every participant is responsible to intervene if they encounter any harassment. If you behave like an ass, you're out.
Non-alcoholic beverages Sauna dries up the body. Make sure that there are always non-alcoholic beverages available at sauna events. Consuming alcohol at the sauna may also cause social situations that are uncomfortable for some people.
Privacy If possible, make sure that the sauna facilities provide enough privacy for example for changing clothes and taking a shower. The lighting can also affect the feeling of privacy. Dimmer lights may increase the feeling of privacy. Sufficient level of privacy may make it possible to participate for those who for example do not want to undress in the presence of others.
Remember those who don't go to the sauna There will be situations where some part of the group will not go to the sauna. Make sure they have something to do. Also, don't leave anybody alone. If there is only one person not willing to go to the sauna, take responsibility for the situation and arrange the evening so that they have some company too.
Avoid making important decisions in the sauna If you bathe with the work team, avoid doing like Kekkonen if all the relevant people are not present for one reason or another. Important work-related decisions made in the sauna may feel unfair and excluding for those who were not in the sauna. If decisions or important discussions are done in the sauna, those need to be gone through again with the whole team at a later time.
Make sure the facilities serve as many as possible Ask what different people need related to sauna bathing. Some need for example shampoo, conditioner, lotion, beard wax, or a hair dryer. Providing the needed products or tools may make it easier to participate.
Organizing a successful mixed sauna event requires from the company more than just doing the arrangements for the sauna itself. The most important thing is to take care of the structures supporting diversity, equity and inclusion in the company. It is important that there is a feeling of psychological safety in the work community, where everyone can be themselves and express their feelings in a healthy way.
A successful mixed sauna can be arranged in a workplace where the employees feel well, when you take the needs of everyone, or at least as many as possible, into account. A completely inclusive experience of the sauna is not possible at every workplace. Therefore it may be beneficial to evaluate if sauna even is an advisable type of event at your workplace.
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