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Pilita Clark: We must learn not to be constantly at work


If you were running a G7 country where drivers were queueing for petrol while businesses were struggling with soaring gas prices and Covid victims’ families were demanding a response to a damning report on your handling of the pandemic, would you go on holiday?

More to the point, would you head to a luxurious Spanish villa and allow yourself to be photographed, repeatedly, painting outdoors like your political hero, Winston Churchill, another enthusiastic amateur artist?

When Boris Johnson did all this last week, it provoked cries that a “weasel with his easel” was “fiddling while home burns” and giving crisis-ridden voters the brush-off.

The data does not suggest job insecurity is directly to blame. Unemployment rates were relatively high in some years when holiday rates were also higher

Yet it also raises a question that ordinary, nonprime ministerial workers face all too often: is it sensible to be on vacation when all hell is breaking loose in the office? Or even when things are not entirely hellish, but so frantic that you will be missed?

For most of my deadline-driven working life, I have operated as if the answer is very obviously “no”.

As an aviation correspondent, I lost count of the weekend breaks and vacations interrupted by cabin crew strikes, airport snow chaos and, in one case, an Icelandic volcano eruption.

Journalist friends on holiday would keep a constant watch on the news, hoping not to be forced off the beach by a riot, earthquake or demise of a popular royal.

News reporters are not such a special breed. Plenty of other workers, from bankers to bureaucrats and boat skippers, put down their piña coladas whenever trouble calls. And a lot of employees know the sting of missing out when something big is happening at work.

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Or at least they used to. The longer I stay employed, the more I wonder if that sting is felt quite as powerfully as it was before.

I continue to be struck by the number of managers I meet whose younger staff have informed them they would not be working on demand, no matter how much they were needed.

I still remember one dismayed team leader telling me junior members of her team were insisting on taking a full weekday off after working part of a weekend, even though they were sorely needed on a big one-off project all week. “We would never have done that, right?” she said. No, I said, we wouldn’t. But perhaps we should have.

Downtime

Reams of studies show humans need downtime and rest, not only to recharge and unwind, but also to stay alert, motivated and, indeed, more human.

For those of us who started work before the iPhone arrived in 2007, that downtime was far easier to find.

Take lunch. In my case, this was generally something done outside the office, often for at least an hour, and never at one’s desk.

There was no reason to worry about a bombardment of work emails at night or on weekends. Phones were still not smart enough to show them.

If I had started work later and knew nothing but today’s always-on culture, I might have been a lot more insistent about carving out time to unplug.

In fact, there are signs that workers of all ages are keener on taking proper time off, even in the US, long the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.

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A few months before the pandemic struck, research emerged showing the amount of paid time off taken by American workers reached 17.4 days in 2018, continuing a steady climb that began in 2014.

That was still well down on the 20.3 days they averaged between 1976 and 2000, and as in past years, most failed to use all their allotted time off. Why? The data does not suggest job insecurity is directly to blame.

Unemployment rates were relatively high in some years when holiday rates were also higher. Some experts say this shows the rise of email and other technology is a more important factor because it makes people think they must be constantly at work.

The coronavirus crisis may have changed things.

Nearly 80 per cent of US professional workers surveyed by the Korn Ferry recruitment company a few months ago said they planned to use more vacation days in 2021. Good for them. I hope they keep it up in 2022 and beyond. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021


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