Changing Outlook on Working Life: Lessons from Living Abroad

In the US, especially in big cities, every neighborhood is bound to have at least one nice café that you can go to. You know what’s great about Europe, and especially here in the Netherlands? Every neighborhood is bound to have at least A FEW good cafés.

Café in Utrecht. A bit empty due to Covid, but still very cozy.

So when I’m writing this, it is 8:30am on a Tuesday, and I am at one of the SEVERAL cafés in Utrecht that are local to me.

Also, when you bike everywhere, isn’t everything “local”?

Visiting cafés was one of those things I took for granted. And I’m not just referring to the social doom and gloom brought on by Covid. I’m talking about corporate jobs.

Before I continue on with this post, I have to say that I am lucky to not have financial worries, especially in these times. I know that people around the world are suffering. The things I talk about here are definitely first-world, millennial problems.

They’re not even problems. Just thoughts! All I’m saying is that I am grateful.

So while the world has gone to shit in so many ways, one of the unexpected silver linings of Covid for me was getting to work from home.

In 2019, I moved to the Netherlands, excited to get to know this new, wonderful place. I had already started exploring in the four years leading up to my move, but now it would be different. I would have all the time in the world to go to bars, cafés, museums—you name it! Except I didn’t.

Shortly after I moved, I began my first full-time corporate job. And by full-time, I mean 40+ hours a week. Somehow in the Netherlands, full-time can be 36 hours, 38 hours, or 40 hours a week. I’m still not sure where that difference comes from. Is 36 or 38 hours really the same as full-time? I clearly still have A LOT to learn!

Regardless, when I started my new job mid-October, I was excited. Naïve that I was, I didn’t think this would impact the way I lived my life as much as it did. After all, I worked much, MUCH more while getting my Ph.D. While that’s true, I was completely unprepared for the lack of flexibility that comes with being in an office between 9am and 6pm.

At first I didn’t notice, but then came November, when the sunlight hours shortened to the point when I got to work in darkness, and left it in darkness. A month had gone by, and I found myself completely emotionally overwhelmed from the newness of everything and physically exhausted from my long-ish commute.

Needless to say, my dream of having time and energy for all the things I wanted to explore was just that, a fantasy. This was real life.

My experience is certainly not unusual. But when you move to a new place, how the hell are you supposed to get to know it when you’re at work all day? As much as I loved my evenings and weekends, it was limiting.

So this is what all normal people have been talking about while I was lucky enough to bask in the unlimited flexibility offered to you by a non-traditional career in academia. Interesting.

I didn’t realize how much it had affected me until after the lockdown, I found myself with slightly more time than usual. It was wonderful. With the commute out of the way, I could now have morning with coffee and breakfast at home. In the evenings, I wasn’t back too late for a borrel.

But most of all, I felt connected to this new country I had move to.

I haven’t heard very many people talk about this, which is why I wanted to write about it here—when someone moves abroad for work, it can be really difficult to get to know a place when there just isn’t enough time to explore your surroundings. Your progress in assimilating will be slow, and it will take time to get to know people outside of work.

As an American, I honestly hadn’t given this any thought. Many people I know in the US would consider a 40-50 hour work week to be the equivalent of going on holiday. 80+ hour work weeks are not unheard of in many careers. Then how do you have time for anything?

Once I had to start working from home, my quality of life in terms of how much time I had improved dramatically. I started doing more things in Utrecht and actually got to experience what the city has to offer. I had more time for things I liked to do (hello blogging and YouTube!), and I even had time to make new friends. IN SPITE OF COVID!

I’ve said this before in my posts, but I’ve learned to put life first from the Dutch. During Covid, I especially got a chance to see the other side of things. What just a bit more time and flexibility could do for you.

But the change is mindset has definitely been a process. Even though Covid was a catalyst, I don’t know when that process of changing my mindset first began; all I know is that when I was initially looking for jobs in the Netherlands, I didn’t understand what it meant to work 0,6 FTE (3 days a week) or 0,8 FTE (4 days a week). Not only did I not know what that meant, I was convinced that no one would ever want to do that.

I remember saying this to my Dutch mother-in-law, who was completely confused by my question. She simply laughed and asked me how people would have time for other things if there wasn’t a part-time work option?

And I didn’t know what she meant then. I do now. And after a year at my job, after speaking to many Dutch people, learning more about the way of life here, I am coming around to the idea that there is more than one way to further your career and work life.

5 thoughts on “Changing Outlook on Working Life: Lessons from Living Abroad

Add yours

  1. One should work to live and not live to work. That is something a lot of dutch people understand and do.

    I like your blogs and they give a view how other people view the Netherlands and the Dutch 🙂

    Regarding the question how 36 or 38 hours can be full-time, it has to do with what the standard working hours for the company is. If the company says that the standard workweek is 38 hours, you can still work 40 hours per week and get holiday time for the hours you work more. So you would get 1 day (8 hours) to spend freely every 4 weeks and most of the time those hours are just added to your normal holiday amout.

    I hope this gives you some insight how that works.

    Like

  2. I wish I had the opportunity to work and live abroad! I loved reading about your experience. As an overworked American it’s great to read about the cultural differences you’ve experienced.

    Like

  3. Hi,
    I’ve been reading your blog and I would like to thank you for promoting the Netherlands in the way you do. It made me realize that I’m very lucky to live in the Low Lands. You are counting the blessings that we do not even give a second thought. I hope that you and your love will have the best of times and a happy life in the Netherlands.

    Like

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