We all enjoy a few days off over Christmas, yet new research suggests many Britons fail to take their full allotment of holiday days. Rhymer Rigby looks into the politics of booking time off
With Christmas only a week away, many people’s thoughts are now on their holidays. But they might also be thinking about the holiday they haven’t taken. A recent survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of thetrainline.com suggests that the average UK worker will let 3.34 days of their annual leave expire this year, largely because they’re too busy with their jobs.
When you think about it, losing holiday like this is deeply stupid. It’s not “like” working for free. It is working for free. But many of us have a confused attitude to time off. Instead of viewing it as a part of our contract like salary, we wrap it up in anxiety, guilt and pressure from our boss and colleagues. So, how do you holiday smarter – and when should you go away?
Let’s start with the big question: do you have school-aged kids? If you do and they’re in the state system, your options are limited. The days when indulgent teachers would turn a blind eye to a week’s “culturally enriching” term-time skiing are long gone. With private education, you may have more flexibility, but this lessens as they get older and exams near. You’ll want to want to keep them in school, so they can get into a good university and continue to cost you money for years to come.
Even if your holiday options are straitjacketed by your offspring, you’ll still need to negotiate with colleagues though – and tact is called for. John Lees, a careers coach and the author of How to Get a Job You Love says, “You can cause resentment if you go in with the idea that you have the unalienable right to take certain times off.” In practice, your child-free colleagues probably will flex around you – not least because prices tend to be lower in term time – but it’s better if they do so of their own choosing. Don’t be that parent.
If you don’t have kids (or have platinum childcare) it gets much more interesting as, with long haul and winter sports, you can holiday pretty much any time of the year. Cory Cook, an organisation and time management expert, suggests that the dark, cold times of the year might be best in terms of your well-being. Having endured an English November and December, a blast of sunshine in late January could be just what the doctor ordered. Moreover, by de-stressing you and fighting SAD, you’ll be more productive in February and March when you might otherwise flag.
You should also be aware of the rhythms of your organisation. There’s a school of thought that says it’s best to vacation during the quiet times of the year such as August. But a cleverer take on this might be to look at the times when activity takes place that has little bearing on your career. For example, you could have a period that is all about winning new business (and an opportunity to shine), which is then followed by administrative drudge work. As long it’s not nakedly obvious that you’re skipping the dull stuff, this could be the perfect time to go away.
There’s also something to be said for working during the quiet periods of the year, such as the gap between Christmas an New Year. “The slower holiday period can be a good time to tackle the tasks that are important but not urgent,” says Cook. “You can focus on the strategic stuff that pays off in the long run.” There may also be opportunities to do work above your grade and, of course, you get brownie points for being the good guy who took one for team over Christmas.
Others say that best time to take off is when your boss is off, the thinking being that they won’t be around to appreciate your good work. But this is wrong. Your boss’s absence can mean the chance to try on a pair of bigger shoes and forge contacts with those above you. Moreover, in today’s flatter organisations, reporting lines go all over the place: your boss might not see how well you dealt with a difficult problem, but other bosses will.
All these considerations still have to mesh with your colleagues’ needs. Here, again Lees counsels sensitivity to co-workers even if you think they’re being ridiculous. “It’s about the amount of pain – or perceived pain – your holiday causes others,” he says.
The flip side of this coin is that there can be easy wins. If, for instance, you want to take holiday sometime in November or early December, but your colleague Bob is desperate to visit his brother in Canada for his 50th on November 2nd, you could say that you’re happy to give him first dibs, on the understanding you get precedence next time. This results in good office karma and Bob need never know that your “sacrifice” was pretty negligible.
However, even tact and strategy won’t save from straight holiday clashes with colleagues. If only one you can take the time off, you just have to behave decently, act like an adult and be as fair as you can.
If you really can’t take a long break, for whatever reason, there are other options. Cook says that you shouldn’t think only in terms of a fortnight in the sun. Instead, she suggests, you could take a series of long weekends. “Even short breaks can help you recharge.”
Whatever you do, though, you should see taking all your holiday as one of your year end goals. Most people who struggle to take time off do so because they view themselves as indispensable (“what will they do without me?”) or too easily replaceable (“perhaps they’ll notice my deputy can do my job”). Neither is likely to be true.
Instead, tell yourself that being able to take holidays shows that you’re on top of your job and confident enough to delegate important tasks. If you manage a team, their being able to function without you for a fortnight demonstrates that you’re a good boss, not that you’re unnecessary. Finally, remind yourself that taking time out to recharge and relax isn’t a nice extra, it’s an absolute necessity. Japan is the country with the world’s highest rate of untaken holiday. It’s also the nation that gave us the word Karōshi, which means “death from overwork.”