Ever since humans needed to bring home a paycheck in order to satisfy basic needs, men and women have been doing their best to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Most of us spend the vast majority of our days on a clock, and try to fit our personal relationships, hobbies and travel into off-work hours.
In a world that seems to be asking more and more from us, achieving that balance is no easy task. But some countries, like the Netherlands, do it better than others.
Before we can say what the Dutch do right, let’s first see why, for so many of us, achieving work-life balance is so hard. According to the Mental Health Foundation in the U.K., some of the signs of an unhealthy work-life balance include neglecting other aspects of life because of working long hours. This led to employees being vulnerable to mental health problems, employees worrying about work outside of the office, a lack of personal development, and poor relationships and home life.
Based on that assessment, it seems the key to balance is simply having enough time in the day to take care of our many needs. So what can the Dutch teach the rest of the world about balancing work and play?
In the Netherlands, many folks work part-time
In the U.S. the average worker spends about 49 hours per week working, or as the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) notes, 1,788 hours per year. Contrast that with Mexico that has workers putting in 2,237 hours per year and it doesn’t seem so bad. But, look at a country like the Netherlands with a population that, on average, works 1,380 hours per year. It would appear that Americans work quite a bit, not leaving nearly as much time for outside interests.
One reason for the low number of hours in the Netherlands is because many Dutch people opt to work part-time jobs. According to The Economist, 76.6 percent of women and 26.8 percent of men work fewer than 36 hours per week. There is even a law on the books guaranteeing that workers have the right to request a job that has more relaxed hours.
What about the people who work full-time? You likely won’t see them putting in extended hours week after week like so many in the U.S. and Asia do. In OECD’s Better Life Initiative, they report that in the Netherlands, less than 0.5 percent of employees work very long hours. That’s the lowest rate of all the countries they study, with an average of 13 percent.
Fewer working hours means more time to enjoy family, friends, hobbies, and even just to take care of day-to-day demands like errands, cooking and exercise. Of course, the tradeoff is making less money than working a full-time job.
Vacation time with a twist
In the U.S., any amount of paid vacation time that exceeds two weeks is considered a gift, especially because there is no law on the books guaranteeing paid time off.
Contrast that with countries in Europe, and two weeks (or 10 days) starts to look like a long weekend. The seven countries with the most vacation time as of 2013 included Italy, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, Portugal and Austria, all offering 30 or more vacation days per year. That gives Europeans more time to take holidays, recuperate during times of stress, and spend more time away from the office.
The Netherlands guarantees 20 vacation days for workers. While that’s fewer than the countries with the most, Holland offers an interesting twist. You are actually given extra money to take a vacation.
Russell Shorto, an American living in Holland, wrote in the New York Times, “In late May of last year an unexpected $4,265 arrived in my account: vakantiegeld. Vacation money. This money materializes in the bank accounts of virtually everyone in the country just before the summer holidays; you get from your employer an amount totaling 8 percent of your annual salary, which is meant to cover plane tickets, surfing lessons, tapas: vacations. And we aren’t talking about a mere “paid vacation” — this is on top of the salary you continue to receive during the weeks you’re off skydiving or snorkeling.”
The take home
Paid vacations? Fewer working hours? If work-life balance is about finding more time to see our families, our friends, to enjoy our hobbies and take care of our stress levels, working less appears to be the solution, a conclusion the Netherlands seems to have found all on its own.
A regular in the top 10 happiest nations, living in Holland does have its additional perks. The OECD sums up about living in Holland, “The Netherlands rank above the average in work-life balance, jobs and earnings, housing, income and wealth, education and skills, subjective well-being, health status, and social connections.”
It seems we have two options: move to Holland, or learn from their successes and bring some of Holland home. Work less. Live more.
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