“You can’t sprint a marathon” – taking annual leave in the lockdown

Monday 08 June 2020
Even booking some time off has positive neurological effects...

Annual leave is not just a perk; it’s a health and safety requirement. It might not be as obvious as a risk assessment for the use of workplace equipment, but it’s in the same ballpark. We often forget this; as a result, annual leave is discussed as a benefit rather than a necessity.

But it is a necessity, because we’re all constantly under stress. Some of that stress is very obvious, such as challenging deadlines, but some we’re barely aware of – fluctuations in temperature, the constant buzz of activity, how we navigate the office and working from home. These all quietly wear us down, explains Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist.

“We work on so many cycles, from our daily circadian rhythms to our ultradian rhythms on a 90-minute cycle,” he explains. “We live our whole lives in a life cycle, and work is integrated into that. Which is why the idea of work/life balance is a bit antiquated. Actually, your work cycle is embedded within your life cycle, and you need to effectively stop to be able to go again. When that work cycle is constantly spinning, that’s when you start to become burnt out.”

The health (and business) benefits of taking leave

Booking a holiday helps to give us a goal, explains Geraldine Joaquim, a TEDx speaker and owner of Mind Your Business, which works with organisations to develop occupational health strategies. Simply knowing a holiday is booked can increase serotonin levels and reduce cortisol, making people less stressed and more content.

“It’s particularly important in lockdown – the days are all sort of segueing into each other, and we’re not having our traditional weekends. Every day feels kind of the same… it's very easy to let work come into your life in a far bigger way than if you were going into a structured office set-up. So taking holidays can give you a sense of structure. It’s a lot like Groundhog Day for a lot of people, and being able to put things away that you’ve let slide into your personal life can be really beneficial.”

Taking full breaks away from your work (including your emails) has a number of real health benefits. Getting up from your desk and being less sedentary for a couple of weeks, for example, can reduce inflammation and the risk of heart disease. It can help you to be more creative and productive.

“Managers should be encouraging their people to take some time off – by doing that, they can expect their outputs to improve,” says Amber Coster, CEO of The Balance Project. “There’s the human side of things in that your health will be better when you take leave, but there’s a business benefit side to this as well. Your business will end up making more money if you encourage your employees to get a bit more balance.”

Why your people don’t want to take leave

At the moment, people are more resistant than ever to take a break, says Coster, and this isn’t because they can’t fly anywhere. The Covid-19 crisis has taken everyone out of their comfort zones. People feel like everything is out of their control. They fear for the safety of their friends and relatives. Work, in this context, is like a comfort blanket; it gives people something familiar to hold onto. “We’re all living under this constant ambient anxiety that’s buzzing in the background. Throwing ourselves into work and using that as a distraction is much more comfortable.”

While it’s not comfortable to stop and reflect, working through the lockdown without a break is not sustainable. Think of it, says Coster, like trying to sprint through a marathon – it’s not possible. “If we do that too much without taking the appropriate rest, it just leads to burn out.”

How to get into a holiday mindset in lockdown

Marilyn Devonish is a certified NLP trainer, executive coach, and a firm believer in the power of a staycation. Here’s her advice on how to distance yourself from work when taking leave at home:

  • Put your out of office on. “Alert people, tell them what’s going on. Ask yourself: what is more important? Your health, wellbeing and sanity, or replying to a couple of emails?”
  • Act like you are on holiday. “Wear your holiday clothes, even if you don’t leave the house. Get your holiday books that you want to read.”
  • Use technology. “If you like sightseeing, a lot of museums now are doing virtual tours. I did a tour of an Egyptian tomb a few weeks ago – it was fantastic! I went to a Caribbean Soca Zoom party. My sister, who is also in the Caribbean was there as well. For an instant, it felt like I was back in Barbados.”
  • Use your senses. “There’s an NLP term called anchoring. People will hear music and it will anchor them to the state they were in when they heard it. It fires off the same emotional responses. That is how it transports people so quickly. Smells have a similar effect – certain food smells can take you back to that Greek holiday you went on a few years ago. Engage the senses as much as you can.”

Checklist 34 in ManagementDirect (free to access for CMI members) is a six-point guide to stress management and how to put yourself first. You can also read our other content that explores mental health topics relevant to the workplace here.

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