Photo: Nik Hoberg/Shutterstock

Work-Life Balance in Finland: Americans Are on a Different Planet

Finland United States
by Tim Walker Jan 7, 2015

My wife and I welcomed our second child into the world exactly two weeks ago. If I was still teaching in the U.S., I’d be back in the classroom by now.

In Finland, fathers are granted 18 days of paid paternity leave. When our first child (Misaiel) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I took three personal days away from school. At the time, I thought this was a fair-sized chunk. And then, nearly two years later, I experienced life in Finland.

From three weeks of paid paternity leave to free health care to free higher education, I feel as if I’ve moved to a different planet. But these social policies, although generous, aren’t the things that have most impressed me about living in Finland.

More than anything else, I’ve been refreshed by the Finnish approach to balancing the demands of work and life. Finns work hard, but they work within limits and pace themselves.

American burnout

My teaching superheroes have always been the teachers who live in their classrooms; they’re the first ones at school and the last ones to leave. I’ve spent most of my career trying to imitate them. But now that I’m in Finland, my idea of the teaching superhero has changed dramatically.

During my years of teaching in the Boston area, my Finnish wife Johanna wondered why I needed to work such long hours. She would often explain that the typical workload was much different for teachers in Finland. This just annoyed me.

Johanna’s friend, a Finnish first grade teacher, had found a way to work no more than six hours every day, teaching just four hours in the morning and planning an hour or two afterwards. And when she left school in the afternoon, she left all of her work behind, too.

At the time, Johanna’s friend and I shared several things in common. We were both first-year teachers at the first grade level and we were under 25-years old. But that’s really where our similarities ended.

My first graders’ 7-hour school day was nearly twice as long as her students’ school day. By the time she had left school, I hadn’t even completed my last class. And I had a mountain of planning waiting for me as soon as I waved goodbye to my kids.

In my first year of teaching, I would typically spend about two hours planning before school and three hours planning afterschool. I had virtually no boundaries, spending these additional hours of work either at the classroom desk or the kitchen table at home. And even when I had the chance to enjoy a break during a lunch block, I’d often work through this time, zigzagging across my classroom with a peeled banana in one hand, nibbling on-the-go.

All told, I was putting in 12-hour days of work. It’s no wonder why I was bothered by the hours of Johanna’s friend in Finland. My workday was twice as long.

Given her lighter workload, I was arrogantly convinced that she was an inferior teacher. I believed that teachers proved their strength by the number of hours they devoted to the teaching profession. By my estimation, she didn’t measure up.

By the end of my first year of teaching, I discovered that I was, by far, the weaker one. A dreadful lack of work-life balance had caught up to me. I was brimming over with stress and anxiety. And worst of all, the job of teaching was no longer joyful.

My humbling month-long leave of absence was the result of a host of factors. But perhaps the greatest cause of my burnout was overworking without breaks and boundaries.

Breaks and boundaries

I’ve never had colleagues tell me they were concerned that I wasn’t taking enough breaks until I started working at a Finnish school.

And I’ve never had a boss encourage me to limit my work hours until I started teaching in Finland.

In my last week of work before my paternity leave, I was approached by one of my school’s Finnish principals on two separate occasions. On one late-Wednesday afternoon, I heard this in my ear: “Shouldn’t you be at home?” On a Friday at 3:30pm, I was interrupted as I planned a lesson in our empty teachers’ lounge and told plainly, “Time to go home.”

The words of this Finnish principal contrasted sharply with the message of an American principal I met as a teacher in the Boston area. According to him, there were just two kinds of teachers. There were those who worked late into the afternoon and those who “beat the bus out of the parking lot.” One group represented committed educators while the other did not.

Teaching in Finland has shown me that this dichotomy is off-target and unhelpful. Although I see Finnish teachers take coffee breaks throughout each day and often head home just minutes after their last classes, they are undoubtedly hard-working and committed professionals.

These are teachers who know how to balance the demands of work and life effectively. They take work seriously, but not too seriously. I have much to learn from them.

Resting hard

Taking time off isn’t supposed to be burdensome at all. But I’m finding that I’m still wired to evaluate myself based on my productivity. Even on paternity leave, the weight of a long to-do list has been pressing down on me like gravity.

We, Americans, like to say that we “work hard and play hard.” But how well do we rest hard, regularly putting our work aside to focus on the other important aspects of life?

This post originally appeared on Taught by Finland and is republished here with permission.

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