America is overdue in its transition to a working-to-live approach

By Maeve Lawler, Kasteel Well Bureau Chief

Upon arriving at Kasteel Well, it didn’t take long before I realized a key difference in how Americans approach work-life balance in comparison to Europeans. 

While living in Well, Netherlands, it became glaringly obvious that America’s ultra-capitalist grindset erodes work-life balance. This means our society is plagued by burnout, which lowers our overall productivity and happiness. In Europe, or at least in the Netherlands, people don’t seem to build their lives around their work, but rather, put their personal lives first. 

This issue with adopting a working-to-live approach is political. This type of lifestyle is only feasible through economic reform, to ensure that all employees are able to balance their lives better. 

Adopting a working-to-live approach is not something that can be solved solely on an individual level—yes, re-evaluating one’s work-life balance is helpful, but the masses of Americans suffering from the toxicity of hustle culture deserve better.  

It’s not like Europe isn’t capitalist. In fact, the Netherlands spearheaded capitalism during the Dutch Golden Age and still has a market economy today. Despite using this economic system, they still manage to keep a separation between people’s personal lives and their careers. 

I noticed this on my first day at Kasteel Well. As I toured the castle, my guide showed me the staff and faculty lounge. She told me that she and her colleagues are required by Dutch law to take a 30-minute break during their work day.  

The Netherlands has specific break laws depending on the number of hours an employee works. For example, if an employee works 5.5 hours, they are entitled to a paid 30-minute break, which can be split into two 15-minute breaks. There are also guidelines on how many hours an employee can work per week. For example, an employee is entitled to 36 hours of non-work, per week.

On the other hand, federal law in the U.S. does not require break times. The U.S. Department of Labor specifies that short breaks, ranging from five to twenty minutes, can be compensable as work hours if those breaks are offered by the employer. 

This simple distinction within break compensation is an example of how Dutch policy aligns more with a working-to-live approach. A paid break required by law helps shift people’s mindset when it comes to the separation of working and living. It shows that the government, and thereby employers, have respect for an employee’s time, work, and humanity. 

The Netherlands also has the lowest rate of employees working extremely long hours among the 38 countries in the OCED Better Life Index, with only 0.3 percent of employees working 50 hours or more a week. Full-time employees in the Netherlands also devote 15.4 hours of their day to personal care and leisure—which is more than the OCED average of 15 hours. 

Part of the reason that the Dutch have a stronger work-life balance ties back to the cultural value of family time. William Z. Shetter, author of “The Netherlands in Perspective,” explains that the family unit, known as the gezin, is a fundamental part of Dutch life. Although the value of the gezin may not be as strong today, it’s historically rooted in Dutch society and requires a work-life balance. 

This balance is even reflected in business hours. In general, businesses are open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with everything closed on Sundays. These business hours are centered around Dutch mealtimes, allowing employees to return home for dinner. Again, reflecting the Dutch value of family—something that is less strong in the U.S. 

However, the Netherlands hasn’t quite mastered work-life balance across the board. For instance, a six-week period of transportation strikes across the country started on Feb. 28. Unsatisfied transportation employees are demanding higher wages, reduced workloads, and improved work contracts. 

These strikes demonstrate that making work-life balance accessible varies across different sectors of employment. For high-demand and essential workers, a work-life balance could be better integrated by not only increasing wages but also hiring more employees to reduce burdens for existing workers. 

Studies have shown that a “work less” system is more effective than a more typical work-intensive week. For example, a recent four-day workweek trial in the U.K., facilitated by the University of Cambridge, Boston College, Autonomy, and 4 Day Week Global, found that, from June to December 2022, a majority of the 61 companies that participated saw benefits. 

According to a PBS article about the trial, revenues mostly stayed the same or in some cases grew, and employees reported less stress and a better work-life balance. Participants also reported more sleep and improved mental health.

The same article said that 60 percent of employees reported it was easier to balance work and at-home responsibilities, and 73 percent reported more satisfaction with their lives. 

This trial, among others across the globe, proves that policies that respect workers’ time, personal lives, and self-care are both better for employees and, by extension, employers. Some businesses that have switched to a four-day workweek noted an increase in revenues, mostly attributed to increased productivity and efficiency. 

Efforts to boost employee happiness are also gaining federal traction in the U.S. California Congressman Mark Takano recently reintroduced his 32-hour Work Week Act in Congress. If passed, the act would reduce the official work week according to the Fair Labor Standards Act from 40 to 32 hours. The idea is to encourage employers to pay workers more for longer hours, hire more people, and mandate overtime pay. 

A “work-less” business model shouldn’t just apply to employees, but also to students—particularly college students. Burnout is an avoidable symptom of being in college. A work-life balance, or any type of balance for that matter, is practically nonexistent for college students, as we’re met with demands from our studies, extracurricular activities, jobs, and social lives.  

Since coming to Kasteel Well, I am hyper-aware of the symptoms of burnout—something I’d easily let slip past me in Boston. As I do my studies nestled in a castle in the Dutch countryside, the quietness of my environment creates an unavoidable reflection on what work-life balance should look like. 

This reflection has shown me that the normalization of burnout in the U.S., both for students and employees, sets a dangerous path for our health and fulfillment. With all of society chronically suffering from burnout, it generally degrades our collective productivity. 

A grind mentality, although seemingly “productive,” is the opposite in the long run. We end up constantly feeling burnt out, leaving minimal to no time for actually living—experiencing life outside our work sphere. 

Americans need to be critical—on the individual and political level—of their attitude toward work-life balance. It’s a step toward ending the living-to-work approach that we wrongfully value so much.