Work-life balance

Belgium-flag-140The historical presence of so many unwelcome foreigners, often fighting wars on what ultimately became Belgian territory, obliged the country’s people to fall back on their own resources. The best thing one could do in the circumstances was to keep one’s own counsel and keep out of harm’s way.

One of the outcomes of this process was that the family became the core of Belgian social life. The spirit of family loyalty, though startlingly absent in some cases, is still very present today. It is evident, for example, in the disarmingly uncomplicated relationships between the different generations: grandparents, parents, teenagers, children all mix together in an unselfconscious way that is rarely seen in other cultures. The family offers an inner sanctum to which few strangers have the privilege of access. That does not preclude one from asking a Belgian how many children or brothers and sisters he/she has, nor does it inhibit your respondent from giving you full details.

Belgians generally have a good appreciation of an effective work-life balance. They work to live, rather than the other way round, but generally manage to enjoy the business of working. However, being great enthusiasts for the good things in, they make sure that both work and leisure receive equal attention. The average summer holiday entitlement is a minimum of four weeks, and most Belgians who can afford it (or are not self-employed) make sure that they get a break that is at least that long.

Many of them, particularly those working in strictly administrative functions, are in fact assiduous timekeepers. It is a matter of ‘nine-to-five’, or whatever the formula may be, and that is it! Yet they are generally hard and intelligent workers from nine to five.

Belgian organisations are aware of the business case for work-life balance, and some of them are now introducing flexitime and related policies to ease the pressures, particularly since many of the larger companies are located in the main cities. Belgians, with their attachment to their local communities, often commute in to work from the countryside. Consequently, the morning and evening rush hours around Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Liege, etc, see enormous tailbacks of commuter road traffic, a challenge that employers are trying to address by staggering working hours.

Home-working or teleworking is also slowly on the increase, mainly at the insistence of employees who want more time with their families and less time lost in commuting: recent legislation has acknowledged this reality and now makes flexible arrangements an accepted part of the employment landscape. They suit many Belgians, but are still only occasional practice, principally with the subsidiaries of foreign-owned multinational corporations. The traditional rump of SME business management however, still tends to view productivity as a matter of “bottoms on office seats”.

Belgian law fixes working hours at 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week. Both limits must be observed simultaneously. These maximum limits may be reduced by collective agreement.

National holidays

Belgium observes many of the traditional Catholic holidays as well as others marking important historical events (National Day, Armistice Day, etc). Banks and shops are normally closed on these occasions.

Most people who can afford it take a month’s vacation in July or August to coincide with the school holidays. Many families spend their free time on the Belgian North Sea coast or in the Ardennes, but foreign travel – either by road to the south of France or Italy, or by air to Mediterranean destinations or even further away – is becoming increasingly popular.

If considering making a business trip to Belgium, avoid the months of July and August and the periods around Easter and the end-of-year holidays. Travel around Belgium is largely trouble-free, but avoid the morning and evening rush hours around the big cities.

National Belgian public holidays are the following (there are also some regional events):

  • New Year’s Day         01.01.
  • Easter Day                  March/April
  • Easter Monday          March/April
  • Labour Day                01.05.
  • Ascension                   May/June
  • Pentecost                    May/June
  • National Day              21.07.
  • Assumption                15.08.
  • All Saints Day             01.11.
  • Armistice Day             11.11.
  • Christmas Day           25.12

Working hours

The traditional 8.30-5.30 (sometimes 9.00-6.00) five-day working week, with an hour off for lunch, generally still applies in most Belgian companies. Only middle-to-senior management confronted with a crisis situation are likely to work longer hours, possibly compensating with time off later. Generally, all levels, except possibly the very top, will respect the traditional working hours: however management may choose to come in later than administrative staff. This has a lot to do with the latter balancing their work with family life: by getting home by 5 p.m., they miss the rush hour and have time for their families and for leisure activities. Managers may take work home with them.

Government and local administration offices are generally open to the public from 8.30 a.m. – 1.00 p.m. Most stores are open from 9.00 a.m. – 6.00 p.m. For shops, opening hours are largely deregulated, but are limited to a maximum number of hours per week: shops are closed one day a week, but not necessarily on Sundays. Banks are generally open from 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.

The Belgian government has adopted the EU Working Time Directive limiting individuals to a maximum working week of 48 hours.

Working culture

Working practices are slowly changing with the introduction of flexitime, home working and the like. Under EU legislation, part-time and temporary workers are protected by law: new national legislation also now provides protection for home workers. In fact, Belgium is a front-runner in the application of legislation assuring equal treatment in hiring, employment and training for all persons regardless of race or origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation, disability or age.

All organisations have to comply with legislation designed to protect the workforce in a wide range of areas from health and safety to ensuring employees earn a basic minimum amount of money per hour – the minimum wage.

Any private-sector organisation employing an average of 50 employees has to provide for worker representation, while any company employing 100+ people over the year has to have a works council (conseil d’entreprise/ondernemingsraad).

Businesses adopt their own policies, procedures and have their own cultures and values. The best way to establish what these are is to talk to the employees and ask how the organisation works. All companies have something unique to themselves, even if the product they produce or sell is the same as that of others.

Health insurance

Belgium has a compulsory healthcare system based on the social health insurance model. Healthcare is publicly funded and mainly privately provided. Most doctors, dentists, pharmacists and physiotherapists are self-employed and paid on a fee-for-service basis. Fees are negotiated at the national level between the National Committee of Sickness Funds and the provider’s representatives. Other healthcare professionals are mainly salaried. Hospitals are mostly financed through a dual structure: a fixed prospective lump sum is allocated for accommodation services, and a fee-for-service payment exists for medical and technical services.

The federal government regulates and supervises all sectors of the social security system, including health insurance. However, responsibility for almost all preventive care and health promotion has been transferred to the Communities and Regions. The Communities are responsible for all health promotion and preventive services except national preventative measures: different public health policies and services are provided in the French and Flemish Communities.

The National Institute for Sickness and Disability Insurance oversees the general organisation of the healthcare system, transferring funds to the not-for-profit and privately managed sickness funds. Patients have a free choice of provider, hospital and sickness fund. A comprehensive benefits package is available to nearly everyone through compulsory health insurance. Reimbursement by individual sickness funds depends on the nature of the service, the legal status of the provider and the status of the insured person. A distinction is made between those receiving standard reimbursement and those benefiting from increased reimbursement (vulnerable social groups).

Substitute health insurance covers most self-employed people for minor risks. Sickness funds offer complementary health insurance to insured persons. Private for-profit insurance remains very small in terms of market volume, but it has also risen steadily as compulsory insurance cover has declined.

Do you want to learn more about business culture in Belgium?