Holidays, it is said, are an opportunity to ‘recharge the batteries’.
First, this tells us that the hegemony of work is so absolute that even holidays are devoted to sustaining it; and second, it says that however hard we try to stop thinking about work in mechanical terms, the metaphor just will not go away.
But while this clich may be immensely revealing, it is surely also false. Far from being beneficial to the performance of work, the business case for terminating all holidays is overwhelming.
Holidays are the closest workers get to experiencing non-work – and that brief and delirious taste is sufficient to create such a corrosive frame of mind in the naturally vigorous human machine, that on their return, they begin asking questions such as: ‘What’s the point?’, ‘Does anyone really care?’, and ‘Why am I doing this?’. Holidays do not recharge – they rust.
What’s more, the effects last far longer than the holiday itself. During the weeks leading up to a holiday, the prospective holiday-maker gets excited as they start to imagine themselves on a beach with the hot sun beating down, and a cocktail beginning its languorous journey towards the mouth.
Although they may get a lot of work out of the way in advance, it is highly unlikely to be high-grade stuff, because their mind is already travelling. And then the post-holiday employee returns to work lethargic, lax and lazy.
Work is, to a great extent, about discipline, and the interregnum offered by a holiday means additional weeks must elapse before employees recover their appetites for work. The best source of energy for work comes from affirmation in the job itself, not a ‘vacation’.
It must have been an uncharacteristic and wholly irrational surge of generosity that induced the Victorians to institutionalise the notion of a holiday. However, what is happening today is that the ethos of the holiday appears to be extending its sovereignty across the entire summer: June, July, and August is all downtime.
Ah, yes, you might respond. But what about the new ideas that are sparked once the daily pressures of work are removed? Holidays are one of the few points of the year when people encounter ‘other people’ in all their simultaneously splendid and ghastly diversity. This encounter may lead to new inspiration, as the synapses click and whirr (battery willing).
Well, perhaps. Yet, it is interesting to note that new research suggests the opposite.
According to Vodafone*, just 2% of people said they were likely to come up with a new idea while on holiday. By contrast, the number one creative location for generating ideas is “at a desk”.
What’s more, changing patterns of holiday consumption mean the likelihood of creative encounters has been greatly diminished. Holidays are now highly segmented, with people choosing personally customised breaks: there is gourmet tourism, activity tourism, literary tourism, Saga holidays, Club 18-30. Why meet different people when you can meet similar people?
The flipside of importing the holiday ethic into the workplace is that the work ethic has now been exported into holidaying. Holiday time is so precious that people use it to achieve: they cram things in; they don’t want to ‘miss’ things; vacations are opportunities to seek ‘value for money’, to ‘realise one’s potential’. Some holiday itineraries are so frenetic and stressful that they make Andrei Stakhanov’s legendary feats with a coal shovel begin to look leisured.
Mature capitalism has thus given birth to the curious phenomenon of the productive holiday.
But this pitch of activity is simply unsustainable. And so the psychological terminus of a holiday is to relax back into the state of tranquilised numbness that characterises the post-vacation lull.
This time of year marks a difficult period for employers. As individuals, they are susceptible to the same feelings as everyone else about a brief spell of not working. But as employers, they know that the summer months are so inefficient that the combined costs of sickness absence and tribunal payouts dwindle into insignificance in comparison.
Seen in this light, it seems bizarre that so many employers offer contractual holiday terms far in excess of the statutory minimum – and even more bizarre that they then go on to explain it in terms of enlightened self-interest.
Yes, enlightened it probably is, but self-interested it definitely isn’t. If the workplace was run wholly along the lines of employer self-interest, the institution of the holiday would indeed make no sense at all.
But this is the point about holidays: they remind us that the victory of ‘work’ over ‘life’ is far from total. Holidays are not about work at all. The bureaucratic vocabulary of ‘recharging’ and ‘refreshment’ so often used in connection with them fails to understand that holidays reflect a set of priorities that operate independently of work.
Work is merely the period of hibernation that bookends the holiday. It merits one or two dimensions of the employee’s personality; the full three is kept in reserve for themselves and their families. Happy hols!
Ideas at Work: The Untapped Resource, Third Report in the Working Nation series, Vodafone UK, June 2005