30 July 2001
There are many conflicting theories on stress in the workplace. For some, it is little more than a healthy adrenaline rush that keeps organisations ticking; for others, however, stress is a force of evil, the cause of most workplace sickness and a financial burden on any forward-thinking firm. But regardless of where you stand on the stress debate, not many would dispute that everyone needs to unwind sometimes, or in modern parlance, everyone needs to 'chill' a bit. And there is no better way to do that than a good holiday. The trouble is that you cannot guarantee on having a good holiday. Forget the different kinds of stress that travelling abroad (perhaps with family in tow) can bring on. Forget the problems of not-yet-finished hotels and disappointing weather. The real spoiler for many a potentially good holiday is technology.
Time and again research shows that alongside a good wage, employees value the amount of time off they get above many other so-called benefits. And employers recognise this demand. Despite taking on board US-style pay and bonus practices, not many firms would be brave (or stupid) enough to suggest that employees also take on a US-style 10-days-a-year holiday quota, even if it was not against the law. So, having demanded a full quota of leave, senior staff then insist on the bizarre ritual of the 'working holiday'.
Here is how it goes: it starts the day before departure or the last day at the office (although these people are so busy that these two days are likely to be one and the same, even if they are leaving on a Sunday). The first stage is to exclaim loudly to all those concerned (or anyone who will listen) that a holiday is simply out of the question. There is no way that it can be contemplated, even with a laptop and a mobile phone. Well, maybe they could log in each morning, deal with any issues and then get back to unwinding by the pool or on the beach And so it begins. Along with the factor 12, the swimming goggles and the floppy hat are packed several case reports and the firm's five-year strategic plan, not to mention the laptop and phone.
And what really occurs over the next two weeks is not a holiday - it is merely a scaled-down, geographically shifted version of normal life. Okay, so you might not be present bodily in the office, and it might be necessary to be covered in mosquito repellent at night, but your emails are achieving what you hoped - that no one in the firm forgets you.
And this is what the whole thing is about - ego. Not many people are as indispensable as they would like to think. Even in a sector where a firm's reputation is built around its people, those people are mostly replaceable. And so rather than a holiday being a complete unwinding, it becomes another stress factor. Two weeks of torture, imagining all the things that are going wrong in the office. During the working holiday, if you are not emailing, then it is because you are busy on the phone.
So what can human resource (HR) departments do about this fever for work that prevents staff unwinding and may cause work-related illness? To be honest, not a great deal. To some extent it relies not on policies or processes, but on culture. And culture spreads by example. Calling up a junior member of staff while on holiday, or worse, letting it be known that they must call you regularly while you are away (let us not pretend that it is a real holiday) sets the example. It sends out a message that achievers do not unwind.
Many HR managers take great pains to ensure that all employees take their full quota of holidays, monitoring days of leave remaining as the year progresses or refusing to let staff carry over unused days. But however hard they try, it is a different matter to ensure that once on leave, those employees really are unwinding and have left work at home with their raincoat and umbrella.
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