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Dutch treat

Imagine selecting a work schedule from a smorgasbord of choices: five half-days, three days a week, every other Friday off. Then there’s dessert: six months off to travel

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At 2:30 p.m., Astrid Sitskoorn is closing up for the day as usual. Rushing around in that twilight between work and home, she shuts off her computer, dials a co-worker upstairs who’s helping her out and asks, “Are you sure you know how to use the phone?” Within minutes, a young research engineer in a blue button-down shirt appears; she hands him her cellphone, explains how to direct the office’s calls, just like a mother leaving a babysitter instructions. In her mid-30s, with easy-care, short blond hair and practical pants, she’s off to pick up her son, Remi, from school and then it’s home to enjoy her garden.

Sitskoorn works as a secretary for TNO Bouw, part of the Dutch National Research Council. She logs a full day on Wednesdays and gets Fridays off; on her other three workdays, she stops early, leaving the department to do without her. Even when the other secretary goes on holidays, the office gets a different person to cover for her. No biggie.

Sitskoorn lives in a green complex of townhouses dating from the early ’70s. It’s typically Dutch, with small front plots bursting with flowers and pride of ownership, picture windows at both front and back so you can see right through the house. Bikes, at least one or two, stand near the front doors. Sitskoorn parks at her house and walks half a block to the Rembrandt School where Remi goes to kindergarten. Mothers, grandparents and even fathers wait at the gate. Three dads are with their kids on this weekday. Perhaps, like Sitskoorn, they leave work early or they don’t work Mondays. There’s no telling, since this is not your standard nine-to-five culture.

A lot of things in Holland seem pretty much the same. There are lots of tall people, lots of blonds, cavalries of black one-speed bikes and millions of see-through townhouses that vary slightly in width or length. But when it comes to work, there’s an incredible diversity. People work four nine-hour days a week, five half-days, three days or even two. Twenty-four, 32, 36 or 40 hours. Some get every second Friday off. In Holland, you can pretty much serve yourself from an à la carte menu.

There’s even more for dessert. Try to picture six weeks’ holiday for just about everyone. Imagine taking six months off work to study or travel (or just loaf) at any time just because you felt like it. Plus, you could collect unemployment and return to your job. Just think: if one of your parents fell ill, you’d have 10 days’ paid leave to care for them.

As a new parent, you could keep your job–however many hours of it you could handle and afford–staying in the workforce without having to manage two full-time jobs. If you’re a working mom or dad, either or both of you can reduce your hours, so you take care of the kids and still have time for yourselves and your marriage. And you’d keep your benefits. This is equal-opportunity balance, not just for women or parents. Men can and do work part time or take time off for any reason they want. Basically, Dutch culture accepts that you are dedicated to your job but still want to do other things.

If you ask me, this sounds pretty great. So, I went to Holland and saw first-hand how well it can work–maybe not all the time, but well enough to make me wonder why Canadians can’t have all these perks and programs that create a saner, more manageable life. The Dutch can balance their lives because the government made it possible through laws, public service campaigns and negotiations to change the country’s working culture. As much as we chant the word “balance” like some kind of abracadabra against stress, unless companies and governments make big changes, it will remain difficult to carve out balanced lives in Canada. Still, we can look at how other countries meet the challenge.