Gudrun Limbrick considers if we should be offering sabbaticals to staff in high-pressure roles to reduce stress in the workplace.

Work is stressful in a way that home life rarely is. Barring moving home, bereavement, illness, divorce, or a hobby involving daredevil death-defying pursuits, home life should be relaxing, stress-free and reasonably healthy. However, even when it is this oasis of calm, we get to enjoy it only in fits and starts as most of our time is spent in work, often in high stress, high pressure, relaxation-free situations.

All the experts, as well as us people who are actually out here experiencing it, agree that being stressed is not actually good for us in the long-term. Most employers will agree that employees who are suffering from stress are actually more trouble than they are worth as they not only have high absenteeism, and dangerously high blood pressure, but their stress (and its side effects) can impact on the entire staff team.

Holy Days were initially time taken off for religious observation — Christmas Day, for example. Only the very wealthy would have extended periods of time off to travel the world, write poetry and discover themselves. Over the last century or so, we developed the idea of holidays as a time away from work during which an employee could spend time with his or her family, go away and see the world, unwind and do whatever it is that he or she need to do outside of work. In recent decades, we have become more and more dependent on our holidays and our right to have them is now enshrined in law. The question is, are they enough?

We have a set number of weeks set aside as holidays each year. These are ours and we each make careful decisions about how to use them. Either because we have to ensure that our time off is taken when our children are on holiday from school or simply because we want to ensure that holidays are spread throughout the year, we are all in the habit of taking holidays just one week or maybe two weeks at a time. Rarely does the ordinary (non-education sector) employee take a large chunk of several weeks at a time. Some of our holidays are, in fact, just a couple of days at a time. The more indispensable we feel we are at work, the more likely we are to avoid spending long periods of time away from the office.

Through the internet and home computers, we have also developed a nasty habit of “checking in” to see what is going on at work and spending a few hours going through our emails. Many of us are friends with colleagues on Facebook or follow the work Twitter feed which keeps us in constant contact with what is going on (or what is not going on) without us. This means that, even on our holidays, the period of time we are actually genuinely not thinking about work at all or doing anything related to it is shrinking.

And the problem with an abbreviated holiday is well known to all of us. There is the holiday which is ruined by the relaxation cold. The first weekend of our holiday — our first day away from the stress of work — and your body succumbs to the infection you have been refusing to admit to while you were working. By the time your holiday week is over, only a day or two have been cold-free.

Even when the dreaded holiday cold does not strike, it can take several days to relax into a holiday. Pre-planned holidays do not necessarily always occur at a “good” time in terms of work. Often, we have a mad panic to get everything in a fit state to be left for a week or two and stress levels are at a peak on the last day of work. That stress level may remain as, even while you are off, you wait to hear whether your company won that order, or made that delivery. The first few days of the holiday can be spent simply trying to calm down to normal levels. By the time you are chilled out, it is time to start getting the kids ready to go back to school and yourself wound up for work. Before you know it, you are back at work and in the thick of the stress again.

Many of us like to make the most of our holidays by going away. We have a tendency to fit the longest time abroad into the smallest number of days we take off work. The days before our holiday are spent rushing around getting currency, packing and so on, and the flight home is followed, often only after a few hours, by going back to work. You may have had a great time away but there has not been any time to paint the spare room, make that dentist’s appointment, buy the kids’ schools uniforms, take the dog for his vaccinations or just sit and chill in the garden.

And then there are those days off that, after a bad time at work, we spend doing all those things we are not allowed to do while we are working — drinking too much, staying up late and generally over-partying. A few days of this, and we return to work exhausted and arguably, after just a few days of frenzied enjoyment, in a much worse condition than before we took a break.

Academics have long since clung onto the idea of sabbaticals. A time to think and research and gather themselves and their ideas. There is no doubt that these not only give them the opportunity to carry out some activities outside their normal teaching duties which furthers their own career and that of their department, but also enable them to return to their job refreshed, reinvigorated and with, hopefully, a new enthusiasm to share with their colleagues and students.

There is no doubt that there are some employees who could benefit from a longer break than the usual one or two weeks, the time to genuinely relax, holiday, spend time with the family, organise our home lives and devote some time to thinking around our ideas and plans. Perhaps time could be spent visiting other plants, similar projects abroad giving our time off the type of relaxed productivity aimed for in academic sabbaticals.

If a sabbatical is just too much time to take off, perhaps we should consider the idea of a phased holiday return. A week off could be followed by three part-time days, enabling us to settle in more gradually.

All too often, our holidays are taken in small bite-sized chunks into which we try to fit as much as we possibly can, leaving us worn out from the frenetic efforts to escape from work. We go back after the week and, after just a few minutes, it feels like we were never away at all. This phenomenon is likely only to get worse as we continue to pack more and more into our leisure time. Unless we rethink the time off we offer to our employees, we could perhaps see more and more of our employees return to work more stressed than they were when they waved us goodbye.

Last reviewed 14 July 2016