An extraordinary thing happened to me recently. I took a holiday.
After a big year of ups and downs, my partner and I decided to throw caution to the wind. In late November, we agreed we’d take a week off before Christmas to spend together, before the usual family celebrations. We penciled it in the collective diary and hastily booked our arrangements for an interstate getaway.
And gosh did we feel smug. We packed up and took off mid December, just as our colleagues were furiously tying up loose ends. Within a day or two of hiking, beach, books, napping and BBQ-ing, we were refreshed.
Combined with the uni shutdown period, we ended up having our longest holiday since I submitted my thesis, at the very least. We were happy, we slept better and we ate better
Accompanying the usual yearly routine of Christmas parties and card giving comes the obligatory December comment from a colleague boasting about plans to work right through the holiday season, including Christmas day.
For many people, the holiday period is anxiety ridden and stressful. Some people may genuinely prefer to work over this season and take holidays at a time less fraught or perhaps more religiously significant time for their family.
Others spurn holidays altogether and look down on those who value their hard-fought annual leave. During my PhD, I had one poor friend whose supervisor (slave master) laid out his expectations very early on that holidays could be taken only after a PhD was submitted.
Such work practices are unlikely to suit many academics who occasionally need more rest time then 5pm Friday to 9 am Monday. Although I suspect my friend’s supervisor would disapprove of such an excessive absence from the lab.
Holidays are important. On my recent holiday, the urge to check emails quickly evaporated. I was less inclined to talk about work, and I LOVE talking about work. I was focused on enjoying myself and connecting with my girlfriend, family and friends.
Meanwhile, my brain must have been working in the background. I came back to uni at the start of January kicking goals. I was excited to jump into new plans for science and knuckled down to get moving early. Over the break, with some space from emails and meetings, I also had a few ‘out there’ ideas to look into at some stage.
Very few people can work consistently long hours for a sustained period of time. Furthermore, very few people enjoy doing so. But it can still be hard to step away and take a break.
Unfortunately when you most need a holiday, you feel most like you should stay and catch up to some undefined and unobtainable benchmark. Sometimes you are, or perceive that you are, expected to be around at your desk or lab bench at all times.
Making a break from work can also seem like an un-academic thing to do. Our time is viscous. Work seeps into life and life into work. We are rarely constrained by the same rigid HR or work requirements of other sectors. We don’t clock on and we don’t clock off.
Some people take holidays without bothering with the step of applying formally for leave. Many PhD students are unaware of their leave allowances or the process of taking leave.
I’m increasingly trying to master the seepage of time and place and activity. This includes being fastidious about leave. If you go through the process of applying for leave, then this is categorically your time, not work’s time. No expectations, no emails, no phone calls.
I recently received some excellent advice from a university executive, which implored me to take every single skerrik of leave entitlement. Work is best done when you are happy and want to be there. Taking regular holidays are an important part of being a good worker.