Keep on working over Christmas

It is absolutely vital you have enough time throughout the year to re-charge your batteries. Those in highly stressed jobs – I think for example of the health professional I work with – absolutely MUST take time between shifts to recuperate or the results to their health can be catastrophic. And even outside of those jobs, most of us find work to have its stresses for which the only real long term survival strategy is to have enough time away from it to recover. And this is why the received wisdom on wellbeing at work is to take breaks, have time to breathe during the day, don’t work in the evenings or weekends and when on holiday, completely switch off. And I think there is a lot to be commended in this advice. The research seems to show this sort of thing is a good idea and there are many academics doing really useful work in this area. So I surely can’t be serious to suggest you don’t actually take time away from work over Christmas?

Well, I kind of am. And here’s why:

Daley Thompson was undefeated in the Decathlon for nearly ten years. He was known for his somewhat anti-establishment personality, great sense of humour and intense competitiveness. He said that early in his career he noticed that none of his competitors trained on Christmas Day and some took several days off. Elite sport is about tiny margins so he decided he would take no days off whatever in the year which would give him a small marginal gain. And so if you continue to do some work over Christmas and you are in an organisation that closes for several days at Christmas, you can perhaps gain some advantage.

But there is also perhaps a better reason; practically nobody else in Western organisations is working over that period so no new stuff will come in. Of course if you work with people outside the West, things might be different. But in Europe, the USA, Australia, New Zealand amongst others there is a tradition of taking time off at the end of December. This can give you time to catch up, perhaps clear your inbox or maybe take time to read. Perhaps time to work through your to do list and do things you have been meaning to do. Or (as important) delete things you can now admit are not going to happen.

For many of us (and this is true for all holidays) there is a worry that you will have a massive stack of work to do when you return from holiday. So if you keep chipping away, you will be ready to ease back into work with less stress. The risk with keeping on top of emails is that something could come up that really annoys you that can spoil your time off. But the risk is quite low at Christmas because there should be few new emails arriving.

And…

Many of the researchers who recommend taking time out don’t follow their own advice and work incredibly long hours. And why might that be? Well I think it’s because they don’t regard their research as being work. It is of course. But if you enjoy something, you think it’s important and that you are making a contribution to the world, you won’t necessarily want to switch off from it completely. And so if that is you, then my suggestion is to embrace it with a sense of balance.

However, if your work stresses you out, or doesn’t bring you satisfaction, or you don’t think is a useful contribution to the world, then by all means switch everything off as often and for as long as you can. And maybe, another blog will have suggestions about what you do in those circumstances.

Merry Christmas!

What to do over the holidays

As most of the western world winds down (up?) for Christmas, I guess the obvious holiday advice from a psychologist is to switch off completely and take a break. But actually that’s not quite what I am going to suggest because if I did, very few people would follow my advice. So rather than suggesting people do stuff they have no intention of doing, here is my advice for a great holiday.

  1. Finish off. Make sure you get all the really vital stuff done before you leave for the break. There is nothing quite so satisfying as leaving work and knowing you have done all that really needs to be done and now you can go home and relax. As in a previous blog, you won’t be able to finish absolutely everything but make sure you are happy with what is left over. The nagging doubt in the back of your mind if something important wasn’t quite finished will reduce the quality of your down time and you won’t relax. So take a really hard look at what you are working on, decide what MUST be done before you go home, and make absolutely sure it is done. Even if it isn’t quite as perfect as you might want. Just get it done.
  2. Say thank you. It is a good time to reflect on the year and what everyone has contributed. Take time to thank your team in person and be specific – what they have done really well and the challenges they have overcome. This is even more important for junior members of the team and your admin support.
  3. Work – holiday. Most advice is that working on holiday is a very bad idea. And it can be. But in my experience so many people do actually keep up with at least some work whilst knowing that this is not what they should be doing, there must be a reason for it. And I think there is a mix of fear and attachment. Fear that you might not actually be indispensable. Attachment because you invest a great deal into your work and want to make sure it is all going well. I add another – fear that on the first day back, the inbox will be huge. So I suggest the following work for holiday:
    • You can check email from time to time, but never when you could be with your children or loved ones.
    • You can read papers, but be prepared to be interrupted (and welcome these!)
    • Do not expose yourself to anything that might get you angry – especially things you can’t do anything about until you return.
    • Be careful if sending email that it doesn’t give the impression that you believe your team should also be working on holiday.
  4. Take a deep breath. Literally and metaphorically. You should do whatever it takes for you to re-boot yourself ready for the new year. If you can remove yourself from work completely, then do so. You will find a clear head is more creative, can see new solutions and spot where mistakes are being made.

But the basic advice remains: switching off is good. It’s not a holiday if you are working all the time. And holidays are good for productivity and health.

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