What I learned as an 18 yr old about work-life balance

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What I learned as an 18 yr old about work-life balance






This lesson, though I received it young, served to be my founding stone on my journey to happiness. I have started sharing it again after almost 24 years (yes…you can guess my age now) keeping it quiet.

I met my 1st serious boyfriend, a young Dutch man, who was doing his MScBA internship in Singapore with a major Dutch shipping firm. When it was time for him to leave, he asked if I wanted to move to the Netherlands to be with him. I was working in market research at that time and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do further. He encouraged me to go back to school when in Rotterdam where he was studying at Erasmus University.

Moved there I did and went back to a college for credits to enter a local university but first to learn the local Dutch language.

One evening in spring, a beautiful sunny day indeed, he asked me to meet him after work at his building. He was then doing another work stint with Port of Rotterdam Authority and was based in this massive building. Told me to be there at 5 pm sharp. Just like the Germans, the Dutch are very serious about their times.

At 4:55 pm, I was standing in the lobby waiting to see him slowly come out of the bank of lifts. What I saw just after 5 pm shocked me. It was like a stampede. Throngs of workers were all rushing out, speed walking to the Metro station just beyond the building. By about a quarter past 5, it was almost quiet again. He came out and beckoned me to come over. Profusely saying sorry for coming down late, he asked me “Since it’s now quiet, would you like to come up and see the view of the river from my office?

I was a little surprised and worried that it was not professional and that other colleagues might not like family or partners coming into the office. Don’t forget I came from Singapore where office buildings will still be busy late into the night and workers are still banging away on their laptop way past the hour for reasonable dinner time. “Oh, don’t worry!” There’s no one there.

After the lovely office tour where I discovered one of my now favourite Dutch coffee cookie, we went for a lovely dinner by the waters. I still had this burning question in my head and just had to ask him.

“Why is everyone rushing home at exactly 5 pm? Aren’t they worried their bosses will think lowly of them for rushing home? Don’t they have work to do? If this is Singapore, you do this often enough, you’ll be fired! Aren’t your full-time colleagues worried??”

He smiled first and when seeing my wrinkled forehead with a worried look face, laughed. His father was one of the senior directors in the said major shipping firm and he told me, ‘he was never late for dinner with his 3 kids and my mum’. By this time I, of course, have known said dad and knew he was always home in time for dinner in a village 70km away from Rotterdam. I put it down as his dad being an older worker and was excused from ‘putting in the hours’.

Mr ex-BF proceeded to tell me the 4 main reasons why no respectable Dutch worker will stay longer than 5 pm at the office.

Now, are you ready to hear the reasons why the Dutch don’t encourage long hours at the office and therefore have better work-life balance and subsequently have the happiest children in the world?

  1. If you can’t finish the work for the day by 5 pm, you have bad time management meaning you could be the wrong person for the job meaning you could have bluffed your way into the job
  2. If you are really struggling to finish by 5 pm, the company has hired the wrong person for the job which means the hiring manager has made a mistake
  3. You are facing mental health issues which are affecting your work performance in which case the company would rather you settle that first rather than letting it affect your work performance
  4. If you are not jumping to leave at 5 pm, you are having marital/relationship problem which is causing you to stay away from home in which case it’s still affecting your work performance as happy parent means happy worker

It blew my 18 yr old mind away when my then 24 yr old boyfriend shared with me these points which his dad shared with him. Without realising it, it has set my path to finding happiness first in my life before allowing a job to fulfill me.

So as it was the case, my own husband was head hunted to be part of a project in the Netherland in early 2008. After clocking 70 hours at times, 4.5 years in the UK, he was grumbling how lazy his Dutch colleagues were to be excited to switch off the computer in the office at 5 pm ON THE DOT. It wasn’t long before the project director had a chat with him as to why he is happy to stay longer than 5 pm. When I told him about what I learnt all those years ago of the Dutch mentality, he finally understood. The penny literally dropped. For the next 4 years, he was ALWAYS home to cook dinner with me and put the kids to bed and went to sleep without the stress of 60-70 hrs week.

Here in the UK, I still see lots of unhappy and tired workers clocking longer than the 40 hrs they are paid for. I still hear of women (mums generally) refused jobs when they are not prepared to work longer than 7 pm. Many companies still don’t want to acknowledge that good mental health equals to great work attitude.

There have been many articles written on the productive and happy work environment of the Netherlands and Scandinavia for example. When will your company adopt it? Or more like when will you start adopting this idea yourself?

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