Few people outside of academia know what hard work academia can be. Yes, it can certainly be an elite strata that full of privileged people. No, of course it does not compare to other kinds of work that lack the benefits, prestige and protections that academia can offer. But for so many of us, academia can be spirit-breaking, if not also backbreaking work—for faculty and staff alike.
Working in academia can also be extremely rewarding, but neither the backbreaking work nor the meaningful rewards are my point here. (And, of course, university staff have far less agency than professors.) I establish this description of the reality of working for a university in order to share a few things about working in Denmark that we can all learn from, which is also based only on my limited experience:
- If it is not in the job description, they don’t do it. And this is the accepted norm. Administrators don’t pile the work on; they hire another person.
- They take time off, time away. Certain offices shut down for holidays and semester breaks, and everyone takes three weeks off in the summer.
- The university owns properties that any employee can reserve at a reasonable price to enjoy a weekend at the beach, for instance.
- If a professor teaches an overload, they earn time off in the future.
- Paid parental leave lasts for a full year and applies to same sex couples and adoptive parents.
- When they stop working, they stop working.
In the U.S., if we have vacation time, we are shamed when we take time off (if we can find the time to take) and our colleagues often bear the brunt of the work we leave behind. If we are sick, we are encouraged to suck it up and work through it. In short, we are abused by administrators and the system and we abuse ourselves in an effort to meet both internal and external expectations.
In Denmark, vacation time is almost a human right. They are still passionate and committed. They still work hard. They might still be stressed out and over-booked, but not to the extent that we are in the U.S. They value time with family and friends. They participate in social and recreational activities outside of work. They exercise and eat a lot of vegetables and home-cooked meals. They know that they will be taken care of if they can't work.
We should take some of these cues from Denmark and work to change the mentality of our culture as much as our own individual work habits. Both are easier said than done. I’m trying to use my time in Denmark to make some of the changes I have been trying to make for years—take on less, take time off, practice self-care, and try to encourage my colleagues to do the same.
And, of course, there should always be some cake.