05/08/2010 - 00:00

Are you getting the most out of holidays?

05/08/2010 - 00:00


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Two business school professors debate the personal and professional merits of taking time off.

The case for ‘yes’

What we generally see is that few people are able to achieve a perfect work/life balance.

Indeed, it’s difficult to do, especially in demanding jobs that entail high levels of responsibility.

If you’re skillful, you might be able to develop a ‘workable mix over the many decades’, but for those of you early in your careers, a good short-term balance is rarely possible.

The truth of the matter is that intense physical, intellectual and emotional demands imposed by high-level work simply do not permit an easy cycle between professional tasks and personal relaxation.

In juggling work relationships and relationships outside of work, each can suffer from obligations imposed by the other.

A little holiday time – however you can get it – might be just what you need to rejuvenate, and re-set priorities and commitments.

• Avoiding burnout

Observing those who have great responsibility for others’ lives and others’ money, we see many instances of burnout.

Burnout, a buzzword for work-induced fatigue and depression, usually includes reduced attention span, irritability and the increasingly strange choices of priorities. If a holiday could avoid all of this, wouldn’t it be worth taking?

Yet, you may say, we see other professionals in highly responsible positions who show few signs of tiredness, they never get upset (at least not in public), do not lose focus and do not burnout.

So, what's the difference between those who burn out and those who don’t?

For starters, people who tend not to burn out have made effective deals professionally.

They negotiate terms with their employer so that the work they do, the compensation they receive and the personally thrilling opportunities they get, all add up to a very acceptable, actually nurturing, deal.

They also make a good deal with their ‘self’, especially, for example, the self that will awaken on their 70th birthday.

They take the necessary timeout, as the days and decades roll by, to keep themselves up-to-date with whom they have become.

And they experiment with personally distinctive solutions to the question of how best to protect and enhance their own well being.

This greatly improves the chance that, on that fateful future birthday morning, their honest appraisal of their life will be, “This is OK”, and even, “This is great”.

Such people have developed their own formula for life success – but it’s a formula that costs time.

• What kind and when?

A generic success formula does exist. The biographies of happy, energetic and useful 70 year-olds – those who made it successfully without a hint of burnout – show that these folks have worked out the essential principles of their own best rhythms of ‘stretch and recovery’, and that they apply these religiously.

• The essential principles

Only you (perhaps with the help of the right kind of doctor) can say. Whatever your personal formula, this is critical: you must give your mind a holiday – every day (minimum 10 minutes in the morning and evening), every week (minimum 60 minutes of quiet time for reflection) and every year (minimum two weeks where you completely disconnect from work stimuli).

A simple holiday to ensure that you have time off from responsibilities, are up to date, and clear in your thoughts is indispensable.

Employers beware, a mind that is not deliberately given a rest, will take it when least expected.

• Preston Bottger is professor of leadership and general management at IMD.

No: holiday myths

Beware of the employer that tells you, “Holidays are good for recharging the batteries.” That’s a nice metaphor. But when was the last time you saw a 12-volt lounging at the pool?

Sure, if you engage in physical labour – assembling widgets, shooting hoops, or touch-typing court proceedings – a holiday will help heal joints and stave off repetitive stress injury.

But if you are reading this column, you are likely a knowledge worker, and therefore two weeks on the beach will not necessarily make you any smarter than a weekend away from the office.

Or at least I haven’t seen any research showing the optimal downtime for intellectual labour.

I am not convinced that a long holiday recharges brain cells to any significant degree.

• The second myth

Often sold by the alluring posters of Club Med: a holiday is an oasis of peace and quiet.

To bust this myth, you only have to turn to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s conclusion about a trip to Disneyland with the kids: “While there, we are completely aware that the hotels are overpriced, that second-long rides have hour-long waits and that the food is truly awful.”

Yet, in the end, our brain fools us into reflecting on the wonderful time and forgetting about how truly stressful family bonding can be.

It’s not just parents with kids that encounter stress on holiday. In these days of too much information, kid-free couples have other things to worry about.

Perhaps the beach resort they booked at was not rated number one on TripAdvisor, or that the plane tickets could have cost less on another website, or that they might not look supremely shapely in their new swimsuits. They are anxious about not getting the maximum juice out of the holiday.

And for singletons, it’s even worse. You are on permanent heightened alert, hoping that this will be the holiday that finally changes your Facebook status.

The inconvenient truth is that the most relaxing part of the holiday is the day we return to work.

• Finally, the third myth

Employers care a lot about productivity. They do, but not as much as commitment. Scholars that study assembly line as well as professional service work have concluded that the corporation cares more about capturing your soul than it does your labour.

In creative and intellectual industries, pulling power for tomorrow contributes more to share price than today’s productivity.

So what employers really care about is knowing that you’ll stay committed, regardless of whether you’re at the office or on the beach.

The insightful sociologist Mark Suchman once told me of a billboard that bothered him. It showed a woman lounging on a beach chair typing away on her laptop. The caption read, “In the office of the future, there will be no office”.

Suchman said, “While my eyes read the caption accurately, my brain offered a mischievous – but truer – reading: in the vacation of the future, there is no vacation”.

• Anand Narasimhan is professor of organisational behavior at IMD.

• Based in Switzerland, IMD International provides executive education for large- and medium-size international businesses, and for individuals.



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