Do Swedish schools teach the best work-life balance?

A strong regard for work-life balance is a major attraction of life in Sweden for many international residents. But what about the education system? Is this dedication to personal wellbeing and quality of life also reflected in Swedish schools?

Do Swedish schools teach the best work-life balance?
Establishing the importance of work-life blalance early leads to better student outcomes. Photo: Getty Images

The Local spoke to an international student and a teacher at Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL) to find out.

Separating studies from free time

Born and brought up in England with an English father and Swedish mother, Astrid Tarbox was well aware of Sweden’s reputation for taking work-life balance seriously before starting as a boarding student at SSHL last year.

Now, she has experienced the reality first hand. “Here in Sweden, the parents and teachers are very mindful of the student’s home lives and having outlets other than academic studies,” she says. “I definitely feel the benefit of that. When you live in a boarding school, it’s really important to have a balance because there’s no real divide between school and home life.”

While she studies hard on the IB Diploma Programme, 17-year-old Astrid balances this out with lots of physical exercise and by participating in voluntary clubs such as SSHL’s Food Group

Students at SSHL are better able to find this balance than those at her previous school in England, which was a “pressure cooker” with an intense focus on grades, she says.

“A lot of people in the UK carry their work or studies into their home life, but there are clearer boundaries in Sweden and that’s definitely healthy. My family has encouraged me to get more into the Swedish lifestyle! The teachers also have the attitude ‘I’m here to help you’, rather than putting a lot of pressure on you.”

A home away from home: Discover the different boarding options and IB programmes available at SSHL

Developing a true sense of self

A balanced timetable helps students to explore their sporting potential and develop their social skills. But it also enables them to approach academic work with focus and positivity, says Björn Nordgren, who runs SSHL’s Debating Society and is a former coordinator of the school’s Duke of Edinburgh Award Programme.

“Time away from their computers and books is good for the students’ mental health,” he says. “It also leads to better academic success because they learn to plan their time more effectively, and if they exercise regularly they sleep better.”

Not only that, says Nordgren, but facilitating the process of “learning to be yourself and in turn respecting others for who they are” is a key part of SSHL’s core values. This is accomplished by providing ample opportunities for individual development through challenges that demand much more than simply studying textbooks.

“Having a sense of who you are isn’t just academic. It’s also about who you are outside of school and the environment here encourages students to explore that, whether through sports, socialising or other activities.” 

For Astrid, one facet of this has come through joining the Food Group to inject some extra flavour into her week. “The school does a really good job with having food from different cultures, as well as Swedish food,” she says. “We’ll have Pad Thai, fried rice, Jamaican jerk chicken and we’ll listen to any other suggestions from students. On Fridays, we sometimes make cookies and give them away!” 

Check out SSHL’s full range of sporting and extracurricular activities

A new sense of balance: Astrid Tarbox, who moved to SSHL from England in 2022. Photo: SSHL

Get up, get active, get involved!

Located 40 minutes from Stockholm and just 20 minutes from the city’s Arlanda Airport, SSHL lies in the midst of what Astrid calls a “vast, beautiful landscape”. Lake Mälaren, Sigtuna’s historic old town and enchanting forests are all within easy reach on foot.

Astrid firmly agrees that her sporting pursuits at SSHL – some aided by this environment – are benefiting her mind as well as her body. She does boxing training twice a week (either cardio exercise or “some actual sparring”) and loves to go for early morning runs.

“Getting up and active helps your mental health, as well as your physical health,” she says. “With boxing, you get to speak to different people you might not have met before, as well as challenging your physical and mental boundaries in a way that’s nothing to do with grades!

“Going running first thing makes you feel a bit more prepared for the day. You have to be at breakfast at 7.30am, so I only have to get up around 6.30am to do a 20-minute run into Sigtuna’s old town and then come back alongside the lake. It’s such a nice way to start the day and a really nice environment to be in.”

Astrid also takes part in Hemserien (the Home Series), a competition between SSHL’s eight houses involving a wide variety of sports: volleyball, football, running, rowing, innebandy, athletics, basketball, tennis and more. There’s even ‘Multisport’, which features games such as table tennis, chess and Mario Kart!

“People get pretty competitive about Hemserien!” says Astrid. “I think that’s good because it’s something outside of the normal timetable that everyone can feel a part of.”

“Having a sense of who you are isn’t just academic,” says Björn Nordgren, pictured at SSHL. Photo: SSHL

The art of teaching life skills

The school also now offers the chance to take the Duke of Edinburgh Award Programme, which Nordgren co-ordinated for two years. The programme challenges students to stretch themselves in four areas: a knowledge or skill, a physical activity, voluntary service and an adventurous expedition.

“There are a number of reasons why the DoE Award is so rewarding,” says Nordgren. “Students must show perseverance to work towards a goal week by week, and understand the value of having goals in their spare time as well as in school. Voluntary service teaches them the importance of helping others, while the adventurous journey teaches them independence and teamwork.”

He sees the Debating Society he currently oversees as another golden opportunity to help students develop life skills. “Students may not even agree with the side of the debate they’re given but they’re still expected to construct that case,” he explains.

“That forces them to put themselves into someone else’s shoes, a key life skill for being a balanced human being. They need to think critically about their research and know that if you just take what you get from ChatGPT, then that’s not your opinion!

“They learn to collaborate by working in teams to formulate their case. Then, they need the confidence to present that case in front of other people, which helps with public speaking.”

Independence? Tick. Critical thinking? Tick. Teamwork? Tick. And the list goes on and on. No wonder students like Astrid are so grateful for the distinctly Swedish sense of work-life balance to be found at SSHL.

Want your child to develop an appreciation for work-life balance? Learn more about SSHL’s ethos, teaching programmes and boarding options

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