When was the last time you took (at least) a 2-week holiday?

Was it as recently as this Christmas? Was it in the last year? Was it in the last 2, 3, 5 years? 

For those of you who have managed a 2-week break, let me ask you that question again, just with a slightly different emphasis this time: When was the last time you took (at least) a 2-week holiday?

I’m not talking about a “holiday” where you’re on call. Or a holiday where you’ll answer one or two emails. Or a holiday which coincides with a business trip. Or a holiday combined with working from your hotel room a couple of hours a day. Or a holiday where you are racing from one place to another. Or a holiday which is basically two weeks of admin catch up because you’ve not found time to do it during working hours.

I’m talking about a proper holiday: downtime; a real break; time off. An extended period where you rest, read a book, go for lazy walks, sleep in, watch TV, paint, drink wine, daydream – whatever it is that allows you to truly switch off and do what you want to do. When was the last time you did that?

Any takers?

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I’m so stressed! – Holidays are a luxury not a necessity

Although not stated in so many words, this is a belief many of us hold about taking time off (me included, back in the day). Society has convinced us that practically everything else in life trumps our need to rest. Just consider how many of the following statements have run through your mind (if not been explicitly said) when you’ve considered pausing for a couple hours or a weekend (never mind two weeks): 

  • I have kids – my time is not my own. There is no such thing as downtime.
  • I’m strong, capable and an amazing multi-tasker. I don’t need a break.
  • I’m not lucky enough to have been born into a wealthy family. I can’t afford time off.
  • My free time needs to benefit me – it’s not for rest.
  • There’s been no point in taking a holiday in the last 2 years, we’ve had nowhere to go.
  • Work needs me – I’m essential to the project. I can’t just swan off to a beach for a week to read a book!
  • I get bored too easily. 4 days is sufficient time off for me.
  • I’m worried that if I’m not in the office that people will forget about me or get promoted ahead of me.
  • I’ve no one to travel with. What’s the point of taking a holiday?
  • If you’re not punching out the hours, you’re not a team player / you’ll never succeed.
  • I find it really difficult to stop and do nothing.
  • Holidays are an incredible waste of time!

The list goes on and on.

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And so, with a heavy head of acceptance and a dose of martyrdom, we sacrifice our rest time (that time for our seemingly frivolous needs and wants) for the “right” things – the things a capitalist society tells us are more important: money, power, success, stability and security.

The thing is, all of the above reasons seem perfectly justifiable for placing the luxury of a holiday on the backburner. But, when we take a closer look, those reasons are merely well-constructed and societally-approved excuses masking our own fears about taking time off. Often our identities are so intrinsically linked to the stereotyped roles that we play (the good mother, father, daughter, son, lawyer, accountant, CEO, COO, teacher, charity worker etc.) that the thought of taking a break from those roles (and the potential consequences of losing our identity – I mean, what would people say?) prevent us from seeing holidays as a necessity rather than a luxury.

But what happens when you don’t stop and take time out for yourself? What happens when you keep on pushing through; putting work, family, friends, relationships ahead of your needs?

My experience – how a proper holiday shifts the stress perspective 

Back in my years in corporate, 70-100 hour weeks were the norm. I constantly worked through my holidays and some, if not all, my weekends. There was one particular period where I remember flying over to Australia to spend time with my step-brother and his family. At the time, I was lead counsel on a mining deal in Canada which insisted on closing whilst I was “on holiday”. Given the time difference, the entire two weeks were spent working through the night (drafting documents, attending conference calls and negotiating), crawling into bed at 4am for three hours sleep, and then groggily playing with my niece and nephews. So much for time off! When I flew back to Geneva, there was little reprieve. The next 6 months consisted of trips to Canada, Russia and Ukraine, interspersed with weekends in Italy climbing 4,000 metre peaks; daily gym workouts; a road trip to a friends’ wedding in France and at least half a day every weekend at my computer. 

Frieda Levycky Stressed

Life was exciting and full of variety, but it was exhausting!!! And it paid a physical toll on my body…  I lost tonnes of weight. I wasn’t sleeping properly. My skin was pale. I woke up every morning with grey puffy eyes. The physical signs that I needed a break were all there, staring back at me in the mirror every morning … my body was literally screaming at me to take a break and yet I refused to listen. I had convinced myself that work needed me. I was priceless to them. I was the only person who knew everything about the projects I was working on. And let’s be honest, I loved the feeling of being indispensable, needed and wanted. Had I taken a break, I’d merely have felt guilty for letting people down and worried that someone else would shine in my place. My self-worth and identity were so reliant on work – that I actually just feared the consequences of taking a break and seeing what was left of me without the work.

When I got hospitalized with pneumonia, and my CFO called me to tell me that under no circumstances was I to respond to any email in the next two weeks, I finally sat back in my hospital bed and relaxed. I finally had permission (not that I should have needed it) to stop and rest and focus on getting my body back to health. I promise you, it’s not the ideal way of spending a 2 week holiday.

Subconsciously, that two week break put into motion a wave of events that ultimately led me to reassess my needs and priorities. I missed quality time with my friends and family. I missed traveling for fun and adventuring. I missed morning coffees in bed. I missed sunbathing and reading for fun. I missed playing board games and creating photograph books. I missed all the “frivolous” things that just “wasted my time” because they didn’t push me towards “success”.

That 2 week rest brought about a profound change in my life. In the way I made decisions; in what I valued; and in what I chose to prioritize.

I’m so stressed! – Holidays are a necessity, not a luxury

My story is just one of thousands of examples of what can happen when we don’t make downtime a priority. And the world already acknowledges that it is.

Every judicial system around the world has built in statutory minimum holiday requirements for employees for a reason. Why? Because it is a common, well-researched fact that a holiday is essential to recover from the daily stress of work.

Stress impacts both our physical and mental health. And the longer it continues, the more damaging the effects will be on us.

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And yet, there we are, with our bounty of viable excuses as to why holidays are not a necessity.

But the reality is that:

  • We need to be changing our mindset towards holidays and self-prioritisation. 
  • We need to stop boasting about the fact that we’ve not taken a day’s holiday in two years!
  • We need to stop joking that taking time off is “dangerous” as it “allows us to remember what life is like outside of the office”! – What is it they say about jokes? There is always an element of truth in them.
  • We need to take a reality check on what is important to us. As Oliver Burkeman succinctly explains in his book: Four Thousand Weeks: “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short …. Assuming you live to be 80, you’ll have about four thousand weeks.” That is all the time that we have on this earth: four thousand weeks! So, ask yourself, how do you want to spend those weeks? Stressed out and constantly prioritizing everyone ahead of yourself? Or enjoying the things that you love doing just for the sake of doing them (and for no other purpose than that).

Reducing stress by putting you first

So, before you think of a reason not to go on holiday, not to put yourself first and not to do the things that bring happiness into your life, think instead of every reason that you should be doing those things.  Like your own wellbeing, your health (both mentally and physically) and your happiness. Those should be top priority (regardless of everything else going on in your day-to-day).

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Life is short, it is unpredictable and it is fragile – embrace every moment you have on this planet and live well.  Don’t just survive each day, enjoy each day. And taking a real holiday (or simply taking the weekend for yourself), is key to achieving a balance, well-lived life. Real rest is crucial. 

So go on – the sun, sea and sand are calling you. Can you hear them?

Take a read of next week’s article “Spotting the signs of stress – even when you think you aren’t” which will explore how stress manifests in our bodies and how to recover from it.

For further insight into stress and anxiety management, check out the article: The “Janu-worry” stress spiral.