Work-life balance

Netherlands-flag-140The Dutch generally work to rule, that is to say that they have clearly defined working hours and they respect them. The Netherlands was named the third best country for work-life balance in a 2011 report from the OECD.

The Dutch make friendships slowly and selectively but, once made, these are generally for life. As the author of The Netherlands in Perspective, William Z. Shetter, says:

“Statistical surveys in all Western countries suggest the same disruption and dissolution of traditional family ties and the rejection of old family values, and the Netherlands has not been exempted from this. Nevertheless, it remains in essence what is sometimes called an ‘introverted family culture’. There are in fact, two words in Dutch for “family”. The wider sense of a network of relationships is Familie, but the unit of mother-father-children most commonly occupying a single-family dwelling is gezin. Housing patterns in the Netherlands, including the customary layout of individual houses, accurately reflect the perception of gezin as a family unit as fundamental. Dwellings, whether assembled into large apartment blocks or in rows, are intended only for the gezin and their typically modest size does not permit much expansion of this. Interiors are normally designed following a custom emphasizing the family circle grouped together. Living rooms usually have chairs arranged in a tight circle to make conversation maximally easy and intimate.

The whole Dutch conversational style, in fact, derives from the family emphasis: Dutch families and their visitors are able to carry on for hours a conversation among six to ten people in a circle without once breaking up into individual pair-conversations (the dominant pattern in the U.S., for instance). This particular domestic model of social contentment and fulfilment is captured in the word gezelligheid”. However, this is changing a bit as the upper class more and more resemble a US lifestyle.

“The values most important to a society are given expression in its primary rituals. In the Netherlands one of the central rituals is the birthday. Birthdays of family and friends are carefully kept track of. It is quite normal to congratulate a Dutch colleague for the birthday of one of their family, for instance their father, wife or child” (Shetter, w.Z.; The Netherlands in Perspective: The Organizations of Society and Environment; Springer 1988).

The Gezin is an important part of life for Dutch people, thus in order to achieve a good work-life balance, this needs to be taken into account.

Dutch companies are well aware of the business case for a work-life balance. There is a trend towards more flexible systems of working time in order to make more effective use of employee resources. The Netherlands already has a very high percentage of temporary and part-time employees. In 2009 almost 50% of all Dutch employees worked part-time.

In recent years, the flexibility of working hours and extension of hours of business have been issues covered in a number of major collective agreements, e.g. in the metal industry, construction sector and certain large concerns. There is growing pressure from all sides for greater flexibility in working hours, in order to cope with the problem of rush-hour traffic, particularly in the Randstad area between Amsterdam, Utrecht, Den Haag and Rotterdam.

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National holidays

If considering making a business trip to the Netherlands, generally avoid the months of July and August and the periods around Easter and the end-of-year holidays.

Public holidays in the Netherlands:

  • New Year                               01.01
  • Easter Sunday and Monday    around March/April
  • Queen’s Day                          30.04
  • Liberation Day                                    05.05
    (not every year a day off)
  • Ascension Day                                   May/June
  • Pentecost Sunday and Monday          May/June
  • Christmas                                25.12
  • St. Stephen’s Day                    26.12

The most important celebration for smaller children in the Netherlands is Sinterklaas, on the evening of December 5, and it is in essence the culmination of the traditional Dutch birthday ritual. However, for older children Christmas is more important. Another important festivity – practiced most enthusiastically in the Limburg province in the south-east, Drenthe, Noth Brabant and Overijsse in the north – is St Marten’s Day, on November 11.  During February there is a week of celebrations, known as Carnaval, which is an important week mostly for the area under the Rivers, Limburg and North Brabant and also in a part of South Holland and Gelderland.

Working hours

Business hours are generally from 08:30 to17:30 (bear in mind that the Dutch generally sit down for dinner at home no later than 18:30). Stores and supermarkets will normally be open between 09:00 and 17:30 or longer. Banking hours are generally 09:00-17:00, possibly staying open later on Thursday or Friday nights. On Sundays everything is closed.

The 1919 Labour Act, which established 48 hours as the maximum length of the working week, was replaced by a new Working Hours Act (Arbeidstijdenwet) in January 1996. Nowadays, average working hours in the Netherlands are between 36 and 40 hours a week. For most employees, weekly working hours are fixed by collective agreement and may vary across individual industries and enterprises.

Summer vacations average four weeks and are generally taken in July-August, while many Dutch people take a week to ten days at the end of the year. To avoid congestion, school holidays are staggered between the North, Centre and South.

Working culture

Working practices are changing with the introduction of flexitime, home working and the like. Under EU legislation, part-time and temporary workers are protected by law.

Almost 50% of all Dutch employees work part-time on fixed term contracts. Temporary contracts are normally given to new starters for their first or second year with a new firm. These contracts are for 1 year initially and can be extended by another temporary contract for another year before a permanent contract is provided (an organisation is not allowed to offer a temporary contract for a 3rd time.) However these temporary contracts can be for full time as well as part-time work. Flexi workers are most often people working for an “uitzendbureau”- an organisation that provides services to other organisations to fill their temporary need for extra work. These employees have a contract with the first organization which has given them work with the 2nd organization.

As a result of its success in service industries, temporary employment is now moving into manufacturing, where it provides additional flexibility for seasonal work. With a large proportion of young people in the workforce, more and more are being hired as temporary employees. Another trend is towards job pools, where several organisations share the same employees.

In order to protect the workforce, all organisations have to comply with legislation across a wide range of areas from health and safety to ensuring that 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 (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

The Netherlands has a high level of healthcare. This is reflected in the average life expectancy, which is 76 years for men and 80.9 years for women. Healthcare is provided by a wide range of institutions and professionals.

Several statutory insurance schemes exist to make care financially accessible for everyone. There are various types of insurance covering hospital care, GP consultations and paramedical care, which together account for 43% of all healthcare expenditure. The government determines the cover provided and the income-linked contribution. Private insurance companies set their own premiums, generally based on the risk of illness. A special private insurance scheme ensures affordable care for the elderly and the chronically ill.

A new health insurance system was introduced in 2006, consisting of a single compulsory standard insurance scheme for curative care. There is no longer a distinction between public and private health insurance.

Recent years have seen a shift towards care in the community for the elderly and the disabled. The focus is no longer on the illness, but the person with the illness who wants to lead as independent a life as possible. Care previously confined to institutions can now be provided at home, if the patient wishes.

Dutch local councils are legally obliged to provide care services for the elderly and the disabled – transport, wheelchairs and special facilities in the home.

Primary healthcare (GP, paramedical, obstetric, maternity and dental care) has been undergoing a transition since 2003. The changes will make care less centrally regulated and more individually focused. The emphasis of the reforms is on improved cooperation between GPs and other primary healthcare providers such as physiotherapists.

In secondary healthcare (specialist and outpatient care), the introduction of a new funding system has the highest priority. Medical technology and organisational change make it increasingly possible to provide care to patients at home.

The Dutch use relatively few medicines compared with other Europeans, and prices in the Netherlands are about the European average. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport coordinates Dutch policy on drugs. The main objective is to prevent drug use and to limit the risks associated with it. Dutch policy on drugs makes a distinction between cannabis and hard drugs (e.g. heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs) based on the different health risks. The number of drug-related deaths in the Netherlands is the lowest in Europe, according to a study performed by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon.

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