By Vanessa Molton, Mindflex Group
Having just returned from a two-week holiday, (although with the kids in tow for two weeks, I think I need a holiday from the holiday), I was slightly bemused by a common response I received from several people when communicating the duration of my break. The bemusement seemed to stem from the fact that I had gone for two full weeks; “2 weeks?! Wow. Lucky you”. So it got me thinking about how we, as working professionals, have arrived at a place where a break of this length somehow sounds equivalent to a 6-month sabbatical!
Research now suggests that to many, taking time off work isn’t as lovely as it sounds. In fact, it can leave people feeling uncomfortable and even guilt-ridden. A useful study which was commissioned by British Airways to raise awareness of the fact that we are taking less holiday and working more, surveyed 2,000 people in 2017. It found that one-third (yes one-third!) didn’t take all their allocated annual leave, and 69% (yes 69%!) did not take a two-week holiday over the course of the year. One reason these figures are so staggering is that this equates to each individual giving up 4 days annual leave a year. So, where has the “play hard” element from the oft-quoted “work hard/ play hard” approach?
As a Psychologist I have my own interpretations around what it is that impacts our perception about ‘taking time out’ of our lives, or ‘taking some time for ourselves’, to be away from the demands and requests from work. But before I get on to that I wanted to quickly bang my ‘downtime’ drum. Research shows repeatedly that downtime and taking time out is one of the key factors which contribute towards us maintaining good psychological wellbeing i.e. keeping ourselves Psychologically Fit. And if we are psychologically fit, then we are in a much better position to perform at our best in all areas of our daily lives. Fact.
So there are a number of internal and external factors which contribute towards this new ‘swerving annual leave’ phenomenon, and I will share just a few of them here. Firstly, we should go back to the way our brain is built to function efficiently, by creating rules and regulations about ourselves, the world and others. These rules create neat shortcuts so that we don’t have to be consciously processing everything all the time. So in terms of rules about ourselves, it creates a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ about how we should think, feel and behave. These rules are generated from the experiences we have and the people and cultures that surround and interact with us. These rules aren’t actually written down anywhere, (and won’t be found in any employment contract!), but have been created by our own minds to allow us to survive. In this case, we are talking quite crudely about survival at work i.e. keeping our job, or progressing at the rate we feel we ‘should’ be (there’s that ‘should’ word again). Our innate threat /survival system is built to protect us from any threat, and in the workplace, there can be a number of ‘perceived’ threats that come with leaving your post for 2 weeks. The important word here is ‘perceived’ because in reality they’re probably not true. For example, the perceived threat of being seen as less committed to the organisation or your team. The perceived threat that everything would implode without you. And even, the perceived threat that everything might just be fine without you and therefore you are superfluous! The list goes on depending on the individual and their distorted beliefs about what a good employee should or shouldn’t do, despite their employment contract saying otherwise.
As humans we are also susceptible to a lot of common thinking traps e.g. black and white thinking, personalising and catastrophising. We become rigid in our beliefs, in the way in which we view what is acceptable or not acceptable, and we struggle to find the flexibility we need to actually look at what would be best for ourselves and our role at work.
Also, with the ability to stay online and connected to work through emails and social media, it means that some of us don’t even switch off even if we do get away. Sadly, the BA survey showed that 56% of those polled admitted that they spend a lot of their holiday thinking about work. We all need more Jilly Cooper in our lives.
So, what can we do about it? Well as the research suggests, taking time off, having downtime (and especially some alone time) is key to our psychological health and our performance levels. A lot of our beliefs about ‘surviving’ at work (i.e. keeping our job or progressing at the rate we think we should be), are based on inaccurate interpretations about how we are viewed by others and their expectations of us. But more importantly, we need to take a look at the expectations we are placing on ourselves. How high is the bar you have set in terms of the amount of time you can continuously work for without feeling depleted or even unwell? Why have you decided that you would feel too guilty taking time out from your team? Has anyone explicitly told you that taking time off jeopardises your future in your role? If they haven’t, then where has this belief come from? Is it a felt sense because your boss doesn’t seem to take much time off? Take time to consider these questions to see if there is a more realistic and flexible approach you can take which means you give yourself the time off that you deserve and need.
If the culture in your workplace ‘feels’ like you ‘should’ be at work all the time, perhaps it is time that you addressed this with your line manager. If your line manager is you, then consider getting some mentoring or coaching to help you work through this and understand the barriers you are putting up. It is important for our sense of self and self-efficacy that we set boundaries, especially when it comes to looking after your overall wellbeing, both psychologically and physically. The phenomenon of burn-out is real, and can lead to long term issues if we don’t find a healthy balance.
So make a commitment today, to yourself, that you consider your approach to annual leave. Check on how much you have left for the rest of the year, (if you work for yourself work out how much you have taken), and if this honestly seems adequate for the amount of time you are puffing away at work-related stuff.
Annual leave isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity for us to be the most Psychologically Fit and high performing versions of ourselves.
Time to search for a mini-break!