Some colleagues at work have asked me, “How do I manage to balance the highly demanding work in the university with having a family with two kids?” I suddenly reflected and smiled knowing that to achieve work-life balance is not easy at the beginning. One major step towards this balance was when I started to embrace some important Dutch work habits, which led me to be more efficient and effective. Of course, thanks to my Dutch husband who has been my partner in raising my kids. I am able to also concentrate on my work. As I mentioned in my blog Why both parents should work?, having two parents that work less in a week have more work-life balance and have happier kids in general. If you combine this with embracing Dutch work habits, you can easily achieve work-life balance.
If you are an international who enters (or will enter) the Dutch labour market, I can tell you that it is very overwhelming and challenging to work in a Dutch working environment. Moreover, you might encounter some Dutch colleagues who are “cold” and serious, but these behaviour are sometimes their coping mechanisms against the intensity of work, including the family life (if they have one). Once you master the art of Dutch work habits, also for those who are not really working in The Netherlands, you will achieve work-life balance easily. Let me share you these Dutch work habits based on my personal experiences and observations.
What can be learned from the Dutch to achieve work-life balance?
1. Dutch separates their professional and private lives.
Dutch people have a clear (and strong) separation between work and family times, which is generally respected in The Netherlands. Working hours such as 9 to 5 pm on weekdays, are normally spent for work and not for socialisation or making friends. Therefore, if you are a person, especially an international, who expect to make “deeper” friends with Dutch on work, you have to pass many obstacles to make friends and probably might get disappointed in the end since the main priority of the Dutch at work is well… to work. The majority of the Dutch (not all) avoid social medias such as Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterests, during working hours, unless they see that social media is important for their networking such as Linkedin. For Dutch, socialization at work is mostly offline such as during coffee and lunch breaks.
Outside working hours like evenings, weekends, and holidays are spent for personal or family life. Most Dutch do not check their emails outside working hours and instead spend their time with family, personal time, and socializing with friends.
2. Dutch loves taking many breaks at work.
One thing I appreciated in the Dutch working environment is the number of breaks they take during work. For instance, Dutch love taking coffee breaks 2-3 times a day and have lunch walk in the afternoon. These breaks are spent on chatting and making social connections with colleagues. Coffee breaks are also a good time to bring cakes and to celebrate with colleagues during birthdays, important personal life event, or promotions at work. During lunch, groups of colleagues often take a walk outside together to eat bread and to breath fresh air. Taking a walk provides a change of environment which helps employees to let go of stress, think ‘out of the box’ and return to office refreshed. Occasionally, there are monthly “borrels”, drinks with colleagues. This is a good time to socialise with colleagues regardless of their position in the company.
3. Dutch takes yearly vacation to achieve work-life balance.
May is the favorite month of employees in The Netherlands because this is the time that they receive their “vakantie toeslag” or holiday allowance. The Dutch employers provide the holiday allowance to stimulate their employees to go on vacation to recuperate from the stress of work they accumulated throughout the year. In addition to the vacation money, employees are also given paid vacation leaves. Dutch companies do not do this out of charity, but because ample scientific studies have proven that employees taking vacations become much more productive. These benefits are happily taken by employees as they go anywhere around the world.
4. Dutch likes to organise their time punctually and systematically.
Dutch people give high value to time. Many Dutch considered time as the most valuable resource in life. By being punctual, Dutch always start and end on time whether it is a meeting with colleagues, class lectures, or job interviews. Being late or absent is not tolerated unless there is a valid reason such as sickness. The Dutch have the saying “tijd is geld” which translate as “time equals money”. Therefore wasting time is also a waste of money.
Dutch also likes their daily, weekly, and monthly activities to be well-planned. You cannot simply walk in to see a doctor or dentist, or to meet your supervisor. Instead, you must first make an appointment two or three weeks prior to your meeting with someone. Thus, an agenda or calendar both digitally and physically (in notebook) are well-used in the Dutch working environment.
5. Dutch people can opt for short working hours.
If you are accepted in a Dutch company or academic institution, congratulations! Probably the next thing that you need to think is how many hours in a week do you want to work. Most Dutch companies or academic institutions offer flexible working hours based on Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) workload. The normal working hours is 36 to 40 hours, which is equivalent to 1 FTE (equivalent of 5 working days in a week, 8 hours per day). Employers understand if you demand lower FTEs, such as 0.4 (16 hours or 2 days), 0.6 (24 hours or 3 days) or 0.8 (32 hours or 4 days) FTEs per week. They know that you have family and that you may want to spend more time for yourself. This is important for achieving work-life balance, which leads to higher productivity.
In The Netherlands, employees are judged based on their output and not on their inputs. As opposed to Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea where putting extra hours at work is perceived as dedication to the company, the Dutch simply wants the job to get done. Therefore Dutch companies allow their employees to work part of their hours outside the companies, such as at home.