Friday, June 3, 2011

Work-life balance in Norway

The Huffington Post just published a list of the 10 countries worldwide that have the best work-life balance; Denmark topped the list, followed by Norway in the number two spot. Finland and Sweden also made the list, as did the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Germany.
The USA was conspicuously absent. The work-life balance as defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was assessed using three indicators: “(1) the amount of time spent on personal activities; (2) the employment rate of women with children between 6 and 14 years of age; and (3) the number of employees working over 50 hours a week”. Scandinavia in other words has a good work-life balance, meaning that work life does not eat up all free time, leaving time for personal activities and for child-raising. After living here for over twenty years, I can attest to the fact that there is a good work-life balance here. But I also have to say that after studying and working in New York City for over ten years prior to moving to Norway, it took me a long time to let go of the idea that I had to work long hours to get ahead, to have a successful career. So when I first moved to Norway, I worked long hours, as did my husband who is Norwegian. We are both scientists, so there is no fixed time that one must spend in the lab. Your weekly hours are often defined by the types of experiments you are doing that week in the lab. Sometimes the experiments required 60-70 hour weeks. Sometimes they required that we worked one or both weekend days. The life of a scientist is not really a 9 to 5 affair. But I see now that the younger scientists are making it so. They are getting their experiments done between 9am and 4pm, because many of them have to leave then to pick up their children from daycare. There are a lot of factors that figure into this new equation; young couples make deals with each other—one drops off the child in the morning and the other picks up the child in the afternoon. Maybe they alternate weeks or months—such that each person gets a chance to stay a bit longer at work if necessary. But by and large, they are better than my husband and I were at leaving work at a decent hour each day. I often say to my stepdaughter that I wish we had spent more time with her when she was growing up. Not that it seems to have affected her too much that we worked late hours or talked a lot about science when she was a child. She has also chosen a career in science, as has her husband.

The point is that it’s possible to have a good career here without killing yourself, without working 70-80 hour weeks. But that’s where the problem begins for foreigners who work here, and I am not just speaking for myself now. You come to Scandinavia with your expertise, competence and willingness to work hard and to make a good impression. You end up working overtime and it is not necessarily looked upon favorably. It does not score you any extra points as it might in the USA. In fact the opposite is true, you might be viewed rather suspiciously—why are you working so hard when the others around you have gone home? What is it you are trying to prove? Are you trying to make the others look bad? It was exceedingly hard for me to accept that this is how I might have been viewed at one point when I had first come to Norway. One of the elderly professors at my institute—who did appreciate long hours and hard work—often said that if he was at work late, he knew that it was only foreigners who were there working late along with him. The Norwegians had gone home for the day. This is not absolutely true. I know a number of Norwegian medical doctors and scientists who put in long hours each day. But overall, the general attitude is that it is not necessary to kill yourself, so if you choose to do so, you do so at your own ‘risk’ without promise of reward. You do so because you absolutely love what you do; you might even be slightly obsessed with your work—a workaholic. I was one for a while. I am not one anymore, for a number of reasons. But ultimately, it becomes hard to not be influenced by the society you live in. In the beginning, I worked overtime, worked holidays, and took short summer vacations, simply because that is the way I did things in New York. My husband, who also loved his work, did the same. Our life proceeded in this way for about fifteen or so years; after that a lot of things changed, especially for me. Suffice it to say that hard work does not always yield the expected rewards. I don’t regret working so hard, but I don’t work that hard anymore. The problem with letting go of the ‘work hard’ ethic was the guilt associated with giving up my intense work ethic. Believe me, guilt is real. It nags at you. It tells you that you should be working when you are doing something fun. I’m past the guilt now. I will never be Norwegian, but I have adopted the Scandinavian work ethic. And in the process, I have learned something about myself and about the society here. It is possible to get a lot done in a shorter amount of time. It is possible to let go of the idea of having to be at work and having to be so incredibly efficient all the time. It is possible to not be a robot for the company you work for. And by letting go of my workaholic life, I found time for my hobbies—writing, photography, biking, cultural events, and so forth. Not that I didn’t try to do these things when I was working 70-80 hour weeks; just that it wasn’t always feasible because I was so tired. And that’s the main difference now. If I go home at 5pm, I have an evening ahead of me—to plan as I want. It may mean dinner out for me and my husband, or it may mean that I have more time to prepare a good dinner at home. It means that we can take a walk in the evening without feeling exhausted; it means that we don’t just come home anymore and collapse in front of the TV, dead tired after a long day in the lab.

Why is it possible to have a good career here without having to kill yourself with overwork? Because at some point, you hit the salary ceiling. For example, as senior scientists, we make decent salaries and get cost-of-living raises each year (and sometimes small merit salary increases if we have done something extra special during the year). But we know that we are never going to get huge raises, and there is a ceiling above which we cannot rise unless our job title changes to Research director or Hospital director. So staff scientists who have worked in their positions for a number of years, cannot rise very far salary-wise above their fellow staff scientists, thanks in part to the union we belong to, which ensures each year that the small amount of money appropriated for individual merit raises gets spread fairly among the members. You can rebel against this idea, or you can learn to accept it. Either way, you won’t find yourself in a ‘special’ or ‘favored’ position. That’s just the way it works here. The ‘goods’ get spread around, like it or not. And sometimes I haven’t liked it because it means that the lazy workers benefit in the same way as the hard workers. The hard workers are not necessarily rewarded. That’s the flip side of the coin. That’s the negative aspect that you simply have to learn to swallow. You’re on your honor here. If you slack off, you get paid anyway, and you most likely will not get fired. Workers’ rights are strong here—very protected. If you work overtime, you won’t get paid any more than someone who works normal hours, at least not in academia. So you end up choosing to work normal hours, to value your free time, to use your vacation time (30 days each year), to take a week off at Christmas and at Easter, and to sometimes leave work early in the spring and summer when the sun appears. After twenty years in Norway, I understand why people leave work early when the sun comes out to go sit outdoors in cafes and restaurants, or at seaside cottages, or wherever. Because the sun is to be worshipped---the months of summer pass quickly and then we are back to the dark winters again. I have learned. I love the sun, I love my free time, and I look forward to summer vacation. There is something to be said for an easier and more peaceful life after years of working long hours, overtime, and intense striving, first in NY and then in Norway during the first ten years or so until I finished my doctorate. I’ve let go of my earlier intense work ethic after some internal resistance, and I can honestly say that I don’t miss it. I still have a strong work ethic, but I've made room for the other things in my life that are just as important, if not more important, than work alone. That's what balance means, and when I was younger, I didn't have that balance between work and life outside of work. 


  1. Hello!

    It was very interesting to read your writing. I'm quite interested in Norway and I'm writing my thesis about work-life balane in Norway and in Hungary (because I'm Hungarian). I would like to ask further questions about this topic, if you don't mind. Let me know if you are interested :)

  2. Hi Cska,
    I just saw your comment now. If I can be of any help to you, let me know. I don't mind answering questions about Norway and about living here as an expat. :)