There’s a lot of time off that never gets taken. In the US, it amounts to 760 million unused holiday days a year and UK research shows that women are the ones most likely to opt out of their statutory right to get away.
Then when we do take a holiday, do we make the most of it? Given that just 53% of workers come home feeling rested, it seems the answer is no.
The very reason we need a holiday is also often why we find it so hard to get away — and the reason we don’t make the most of it when we do.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TAKING A BREAK
At the best of times, holidays are preventative medicine: natural stress relievers, improving heart health and giving us access to environments — green spaces and beaches — proven to promote wellbeing. Studies have also shown that they improve performance and increase productivity at work and encourage greater creativity and focus.
Now is not the best of times. Burnout is at an all-time high according to research by the American Psychological Association. On top of this, many employees are now working longer hours with increased workloads too. In the UK, for example, the working week has been extended by 25% with many people not logging off until 8pm.
And women, in particular working mothers, have been hit the hardest by the pandemic and its aftereffects.
‘The extra toll on women’s mental health makes sense given what we know about how many women have had to leave the workforce in order to care for children or other family members at home, or are dealing with an impossible and constant juggling act of kids, plus career, plus other responsibilities,’ says Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, Head of Research at America’s Mental Health Coalition.
WHY’S IT SO HARD TO ‘PRESS PAUSE’?
A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies showed that it takes a full eight days to wind down from a stressful work environment and really enjoy a holiday. This reflects the effort now required to extricate ourselves from our working lives.
As the Harvard Business Review observes, ‘the ability to work at any time has turned into working all the time’. The business world is suffering from a widespread of work-life-imbalance. In May 2022, Goldman Sachs followed the example of Virgin, Google and LinkedIn by offering its senior staff unlimited holidays, and according to UK job site Reed, there’s been a 20% increase in the number of roles that now include limitless leave in the benefits package. But it’s not enough for employers to give us permission to go away, we need to give ourselves permission too.
The first step to booking a holiday often involves gently putting aside misplaced feelings of guilt at the work that won’t get done in your absence. Or reframing the ‘selfishness’ of leaving your colleagues as an act of self-care that’s essential to your personal and professional wellbeing. Because giving yourself time out may also involve acknowledging that you’re tired; you’ve stopped thinking clearly, decision making is harder, you’re not sleeping well, and you may be becoming more negative, cynical and prone to conflict in and out of work. Which, incidentally, are all signs you’re approaching burnout.
As observed by cognitive scientist Sian Beilock: ‘Workplaces want to elevate employees who are forward thinkers and strategic problem solvers with visionary ideas, not overtaxed employees who make sloppy mistakes because they’re sleep deprived and have lost all passion for the job.’
Research has shown that if you take more than ten days’ holiday a year, you’re 30% more likely to receive a raise. In other words, you’ve worked too hard to not take a holiday!
MAKING YOUR EXIT AS SEAMLESS AS POSSIBLE
- Book ahead as far as you can and give those who’ll be affected plenty of notice —colleagues, clients and any other external third parties. And remind them again nearer the time. This gives everyone the chance to tie up any loose ends before you go.
- As your departure approaches, take an inventory of outstanding projects, prioritise tasks and delegate as required, letting your manager know who’s doing what. You may need to give others authority to speak on your behalf while you’re away. Rather than this being a threat to you, think of it as a powerful way to teach and empower direct reports to step up and take on extra responsibility.
- If you’re worried about problems arising in your absence, talk them through with your team and get their input. Thinking ahead will help them do the same and it’ll be easier for you to switch off, knowing that they’re primed to deal with any likely issues.
- Set realistic expectations for your pre-holiday workload. Trying to make up for ‘lost time’ in advance won’t help you enjoy yourself more. Instead, says author Scott Edinger, ‘you are stealing the energy you’re exerting to clear the decks from the future, and as a result turning your relaxation time into recuperation time’. Instead, focus on key tasks and remember, the point of going away is that you won’t be doing all the work.
- Put on your Out of Office. Say you’re on holiday (rather than on work time) and include your return date. If it’s your plan to stay out of company business while you’re away, steel your resolve and say you won’t be answering any emails until your return. And stick to it.
WHILE YOU’RE ON HOLIDAY
If you can’t switch off completely from work, it’s a question of finding a balance. The idea, says Edinger, is ‘to establish clear ground rules about when you will engage in it’. He suggests aiming for 72 consecutive hours with no work ‘and if you are daring, no screens’. Then spending no more than an hour a day quickly checking for any urgent issues.
But remember — time on your phone, even if it’s only scrolling on social media, is still time spent being somewhere other than where you actually are. You’re not fully engaged with that carefully chosen destination or your loved ones.
‘Rather than looking at the sky, beautiful trees, wonderful greenery and experiencing the calm and fulfilling weather, I was no longer present,’ observed business psychologist Naomi de Barra during her family holiday. So, she tried an experiment and left her mobile in the hotel room. She took a notebook out with her instead and every time she had an urge to use her phone, she wrote it down. On day 1, this happened 56 times, but by day six, she’d forgotten about her journal — and her mobile. Allowing herself to engage fully with her holiday had banished phone-related thoughts completely.
If going tech cold turkey feels like too big a challenge, there are other ways to stay in charge of your devices and be more intentional about how you use your time.
- Put your phone or tablet on flight mode so you can still use the camera but won’t be bombarded with notifications.
- Turn off notifications! Or at least reduce them. The average person gets 65 to 80 a day according to research by America’s Duke University.
- Take any work-related or intrusive apps off your home screen or even delete them for the duration of your holiday.
AVOID THE POST-HOLIDAY BLUES
The same realistic expectations that you set about workload before you went away should apply on your return. A mindset shift is required post-holidays: you’re not ‘making up for lost time’, but cashing in on the benefits of time well spent.
If possible, have a day or so to recover from the journey, particularly if you’ve flown long-haul, or at least kick off with a day of working from home to review your inbox in peace.
One of the biggest benefits of taking a holiday is the clearer head and the new perspectives it can give us. It means this is a great time to think big picture, personally and professionally, planning and prioritising for the weeks or months ahead.
If you’re a team leader, you also have a wonderful opportunity to set a pro-holiday example. You gave yourself permission to take a break — but others may find it harder. Follow the example of Joel Gasgoine, CEO of tech company Bluffer. Not only did he send out a companywide message telling his teams about his forthcoming travels, but he also sent another on his return about the importance of self-care, together with some beautiful photographs of his trip.