Blog post

Work-life balance in care migration

For many Polish nurses, migration to Norway and attaining what they see as a Norwegian work-life balance has provided a possibility to rethink their nursing identity and practices.

By Marek Pawlak and Marie Louise Seeberg

For many Polish nurses, migration to Norway and attaining what they see as a Norwegian work-life balance has provided a possibility to rethink their nursing identity and practices.

“In Poland, I worked as nurse in the operating theatre, orthopaedics ward and trauma and emergency room… altogether, it was 350 working hours per month. My husband was an ambulance driver, working 250 hours per month… We simply didn’t have a life in Poland, so at some point we’ve decided that this is too much to handle.”

This is an excerpt from an ethnographic interview with Matylda, a Polish nurse working in a nursing home in a small town near Oslo. Matylda and her husband came to Norway in 2008 looking for a better life, economic stability and work quality. Being physically and mentally exhausted with work overload and deprived from a private family life, they found no other option then to try and make a living somewhere else.

Interestingly, Matylda’s story is not an isolated case in our research. Many Polish nurses with whom we spoke about their lived experiences and nursing practices in Norway point to what they see as fundamental differences in work ethics and, more generally, the quality of life. Often, migrating to Norway results in the improvement of not only their economic situation, but also the quality and quantity of private and family lives.

One of the most common references in Polish nurses’ narratives concerns the particularities of “Norwegian” work-life balance – a notion that may often be idealised and understood in a rather simplified way.

Contextualising work-life balance

To the nurses we spoke to, work-life balance seems to be mainly about making a clear separation between leisure and labour, which ideally leads to the improvement of both private life and work efficiency. The conditions for such a balance differ across many dimensions, such as history, geography, and gender.

In today’s Poland, the notion of work-life balance seems a rather ‘exotic’ one. The transition from industrial socialism to post-industrial capitalism was followed by radical social and cultural transformations. Before 1989, social relations had been formed by the state. Suddenly, Poles had to adapt to a new reality in which social relations suddenly began to be driven by the forces of the free market. Identity became to be understood as a set of assets, which needs to be constantly ‘self-audited’.

Fast-forward to current Polish society, where the discourse of being an entrepreneur building one’s own life continues to inform daily lives. This makes it rather difficult to practise work-life balance, since it is chiefly work that defines who you are and how to fulfil your ambitions in life. And not least, the precarious labour market forces people to choose between “work” and “life”, combining the two not an available option to many. And if you don’t choose work, “there’s plenty of other candidates, just waiting for your position,” as the saying goes among current Polish employers.

Although Norway, too, has followed a general development from a more state-driven to a more market-driven society, the country has moved from one relatively centrist position to another. A social democracy, its development towards neoliberalism and marketisation, although remarkable, has been gradual rather than a total shift.

Among many things, this means that the changes must relate to existing legislation of worker rights and gender equality. In a petroleum-fuelled economy, such hard-earned rights seem less of a luxury and more of a given standard. Most adults work outside the home. People who need care, such as the frail elderly and young children, are to a large extent cared for by people who are paid to do so – especially women.

The Norwegian labour market is highly gender segregated, which means that in some workplaces, such as the healthcare sector and especially eldercare, a large majority of the employees are women. Increasingly, immigrants of either gender are filling in where there is a lack of workers – also in care work. The more marginal these workers are in the Norwegian labour market, the more precarious their position in a country where worker’s rights are slowly eroded rather than replaced by a new system.

Polish nurses and work-life balance in Norway

The understanding and practices of work-life balance depend on the structural and economic conditions of work as well as individual work experiences and practices. As such, work-life balance often means different things to different people, especially when we compare the working experiences of migrants from precarious states.

This is usually the case of Polish nurses, whose working conditions in Norway differ from those they have experienced in Polish healthcare system. Their individual, lived and working experiences have a great impact not only on their understanding of the separation of and balance between work and family life, but also of nursing and caring practices. For example, as Beata – a Polish nurse working in one of Oslo’s hospital – said:

“These salaries in Poland … they are just so depressing, so if you want to survive, you need to have two jobs as a nurse … So, there’s no time for living, you don’t have hobbies, no travels, no time for anything else. Everyone that I knew in Poland had to work two nursing jobs.”

According to Beata, the economic conditions in the Polish healthcare system have a significant impact on nursing practices. As she added, when describing nursing conditions in Poland: “This is not nursing, this is rather a caricature of nursing.”

For Beata, moving to Norway meant improving the quality of both her work and her life beyond work. And having better working and living conditions, she was also able to better perform her nursing profession.

Variations of this story is common among Polish nurses in Norway.  Comparing their Polish and Norwegian working and living experiences, they point to work-life balance and its important role not only in their personal lives, but also in their nursing practises.

Due to low salaries and poor working conditions in the Polish healthcare system, they often had to muddle through the harsh reality of being a nurse in Poland. Their stressful working conditions often came with the cost of the quality of care and limited personal and family time. For many Polish nurses, migration to Norway and attaining what they saw as a Norwegian work-life balance gave them a possibility to rethink their nursing identity and practices.

As Sylwia, another Polish nurse working in sykehjem outside Oslo, said:

“I go to my work with a smile on my face, and it stays throughout the whole day … in Poland it’s difficult to stay positive.”