challenges of motherhood, Culture, Netherlands, Work life balance

Dutch Women Do Get Depressed

All the studies and blog posts you read say otherwise, but I can assure you that Dutch women do get depressed.

Go on, Google it, type in “Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed”. I’ll wait. You see, if you believe what Google comes back with you would think that Dutch women float around the Netherlands with huge grins on their faces whilst their extremely happy children skip along next to them holding their hand.

Oh sure, Dutch women have a lot to be delighted about. The majority works part-time so has time for leisure activities – like sitting on cafe terraces sunning themselves in the summer months, sports and volunteer jobs. They don’t stress about careers – how they see themselves is not tied to the role they place in the workplace. Dutch women are not prepared to give up time with their families to climb a workplace hierarchy they have no interest in. The Dutch economy is a developed, relatively rich one and wealth is spread around more evenly than in many other countries. Dutch women are on the whole well-educated.  They have personal freedom and much choice as to how they live their lives. So, yes, Dutch women have a lot to be happy about – and that is reflected in the surveys and studies that hit the headlines every so often.

However, there’s another side to all that delusional happiness that the press would have you believe rages in the Netherlands amongst the female population. Dutch women are actually people too. They have issues. They have problems. Gasp! I know. Shocking huh?

Yes, Dutch women can balance five children and a bunch of flowers on their bikes, but many have to expertly balance many other aspects of their lives too – just like women in other countries throughout the world.

Some Dutch women have marital problems and go through divorce.

Some Dutch women are in abusive relationships.

Some Dutch women work out of necessity to help financially support their families, even when it makes the act of balancing the care for their children and work a precarious one. For some Dutch women working full-time is not an option because the cost of child care nullifies their efforts in the workplace.

Some Dutch women battle with difficult schooling decisions for their children.

Some Dutch women care for children who are sicker than any mother can bear.

Some Dutch women are signed long term off work for medical issues.

Some Dutch women are under such stress trying to keep all the balls in the air it’s palatable when you talk to them.

Some Dutch women have burn outs.

The reality is that Dutch women (and men) do get depressed. In fact, research a couple of years ago indicated that the rate of clinical depression in the Netherlands was the highest in Europe.

However, I think the way problems are handled here in the Netherlands makes for a rosier picture than in other countries. I am thinking along the lines of work life balance culture, the absence of financial restraints for support, the social benefit system and the role of local communities.

Firstly, culture. Interestingly, a company doctor once told my husband that in international organisations it is the northern European workers (thus including the Dutch) who are more likely to temporarily drop out of the workforce with stress related issues. It’s a result of their working culture – they work shorter hours than many counterparts, but when they are at work they are focussed, productive and get the job done.  Southern Europeans, as an example, are physically in the work place longer, but build more pauses into their day and are much more laid back. The two approaches to work and the expectation systems clash and it is the Northern Europeans who find themselves needing to take a step back and regroup. And they are not afraid to do just that.

I have seen a number of Dutch friends and acquaintances who have dropped out of the workplace because of stress, all for very different reasons. But the point is they were all willing to take a step back, put their hands up and announce they were struggling. They deal with the problems, get back to work, stronger for it, or make the change they need to pick themselves up.

I think the Dutch are less likely to sweep the fact that they are depressed under a carpet, as is the case in other cultures. That willingness to hold your hands up and say “I am not coping” allows help to step in before the situation spirals out of control. The fact that Dutch culture places importance on finding the right work life balance gives people the space to focus on helping themselves out of an emotional dip, without a massive amount of external stress on them to carry on as if all is right with their world.

This does not mean that a Dutch employee can sit at home for months on end with a burnout without any pressure from an employer to return to work. This is not the case – but Dutch workers do have legislation on their side to protect them, good sick payment schemes and as a last measure financial support from the government.

Secondly, underneath us here in the Netherlands is a society wide safety net help up by the government. It catches us when we fall (its not just for the born and raised Dutch among us). Of course some people fall through the cracks, but there are (government) funded bodies that provide support for many of the problems that could cause our downfall. Finances are often not a barrier to enlisting the necessary help.

Lastly, I think there is a strong sense of community here. Life is lived locally and families often live close to each other. It gives a feeling of support and people are looking out for each other.

So I think the Dutch culture around work, the government benefits and support system, the sense of community and access to support resources all play a huge role in making sure those that need help get it. It helps prevent situations spiralling out of control in many cases. There’s no shame in asking for help.

On more than one occasion I have been offered the support I have needed – and if you are living outside your passport country and away from your personal support systems, help and support is invaluable during life changing events.

When my children were born I had a maternity nurse visit me daily for eight to ten days. She comes to help the mother and newborn – and part of her role is to detect potential issues in the household, spot signs of post-partum depression, inform other parties that support may be needed. After the birth of my third child I was struggling – it wasn’t a question of whether I could get support, it was more a question of which particular group we should turn to for help. The excellent support we received over the months that followed cost us nothing. Not a cent. It was invaluable and I am convinced it prevented more serious issues later. Without financial barriers those needing help can turn to it when it is needed.

As Dutch children grow they have regular appointments at the consultatiebureau (well-child clinic), and whilst the system is far from perfect, and many parents have many negative things to say about it, it plays a central role in referring parents on to third parties for help with problems. It’s another check built in that not just the children are developing without issues, but that parents are managing too. It’s a safe place where you can ask for help should you need it, it’s a place that offers help if you seem like you need it. It is also a free service, and a huge source of support if you need it – I leant on it often.

So Dutch women, and men for that matter, do get depressed. But they are also a happy lot. The Dutch are a sensible, down to earth lot and know exactly how good they have it. I guess it helps to know that when things go wrong the odds are against you tumbling helplessly into the abyss…….

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