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Danish welfare: Bureaucracy puts care services under pressure

The Danish welfare state is world-famous for its inclusive and free benefits. But now, the country sees teachers, nurses and social care workers claiming that documentation requirements and meta tasks eat up their time.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — Having recently changed her teaching job from the public sector to the private market, Heidi Macdams said she did so because she no longer had enough time to spend on fundamental tasks.

"My days became too busy with documentation and meetings that felt repetitive and redundant," Macdams told Courthouse News when asked about her reason for leaving the public primary schools, which are free and part of the extensive Danish welfare sector.

She explained that for every young student with special needs, there could be up to seven monthly meetings with different stakeholders, such as a district advisor, management representative or psychologist. But ironically, there would be very little time to care for the child.

While Macdams appreciated the interdisciplinary inputs, it became increasingly stressful to care for children with different diagnoses and provide one-to-one teaching time when she didn’t have the necessary resources or hours allocated. At the same time, she experienced more mandatory documentation requirements on class results, action plans and targets.

“Ultimately, it felt like a lack of confidence in my abilities to teach,” she said.

She notes that the problem is present everywhere in the public-school sector — not just in special needs classes. In the private school where she works now, days are shorter, and there is more time to focus on the individual student's development.

The case is not unique, underlines Dorte Lange, vice-president of the Danish Teacher Union. She calls it a very big challenge that there is not enough room to build relationships with the students and develop them. Schedules have become too packed, and in her view, that is one of the main reasons why overall teachers’ well-being on the job has dropped dramatically lately.

An analysis from The Confederation of Danish Industry shows how there was a significant decrease in applications to the teacher education from 2016 to 2021. In addition, one in five dropped out within the first year of studying.

According to Dorte Lange, the recruitment and retention challenges are related to a worsening of the working conditions, which was ultimately catalyzed by an extensive 2014 public school reform that implemented longer school days, more national tests and management, and more inclusion of children with special needs in regular classes.

While especially the latter is positive, Lange notes that teachers have not been given the time or resources to deal with mixed classes — especially not amidst municipal school budget cuts.

”Unfortunately, several areas within the public sector are underprioritized. We need to be careful if we want to maintain equal opportunities for all, also in the public-school sector. Otherwise, Denmark can turn into a society, where only the richest 20 percent can get the best education, and we will jeopardize the welfare that we are so internationally renowned for,” she said.

Teachers are not the only group that sees recruitment difficulties. Over the last five years, numbers from the Ministry of Education and Research have shown a decrease in applicants for classical welfare-educations such as nurses, pedagogues, and social and health care workers.

Nurses especially have protested heavily over both salary and working conditions.

In 2021, they took to the streets and demanded better pay and less overtime and stressful schedules. The Danish Nurses’ Organization recently voiced how there is no longer enough time for care and closeness with the patients, and how measurable and quantifiable results are prioritized higher in the health care sector.

According to welfare professor Hanne Marlene Dahl from Roskilde University, it is important to note that the Danish welfare state remains strong. It offers comprehensive and increasingly specialized services to citizens, which can partially explain why care services are more complex today.

However, Dahl argues that the system has become time-consuming and complicated to navigate in for professionals, who are trained to perform care tasks rather than document and administer tasks.

“We see that for example nurses are worn out quickly because they don’t have space for personal contact and care, which is a core part of their job, they feel pressured and insufficient," she said. "That can lead to physical and emotional stress. So policymakers need to restrain themselves in their urge to govern."

That there is a need for better recruitment to traditional care jobs in the Danish welfare system is something Nanna Wesley Hansen, labor market researcher with a specialty in the public sector, and her colleagues have studied intensively over the last years.

In an interview with Courthouse News, she emphasized how Denmark will soon see a larger group of both elderly and very young citizens who need care. That can be challenging, if the number of people interested in pursuing careers within education, health and social care keeps falling.  

”Municipalities, regions, and the government are all working hard to try and make the care jobs more attractive — both when it comes to salary and work conditions because it is necessary if we want to continue having good welfare for all," Hansen said. 

The Danish welfare state is characterized by having big tax revenues , a minimum of 40 percent of personal income. But it also boosts one of the most extensive social security systems in the world, including free health care and schools and high levels of equality in care for children and elderly.  

Categories: Civil Rights Employment Government International

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