AUSTRALIA’S fulltime workers have a mammoth 124 million days of annual leave stored up, or 21 days per person.
Yet more than a third of us say we’re sometimes so overwhelmed with work we would take a sick day.
Something’s not right here. We’ve become a nation of stressed, unfulfilled workers, too afraid of letting our co-workers down to take time off, but mentally and physically running ourselves into the ground.
When we do take leave, it’s often not even relaxing. We get on a plane just hours after leaving work and we’re back in the office the day we get home. A “staycation” means filling our time with jobs: catching up on housework, caring for the kids or checking our email five times a day.
“We need to readjust how we think about annual leave,” workplace psychologist Sabina Read told news.com.au. “It’s for recreation, yet we often associate it with guilt over our mounting pile of work, what people will think and what we’ll return to.”
In a tongue-in-cheek ad for Destination Queenstown, comedian Dan Ilic lists the ways we can lie to our bosses to get an extra day off work for a long weekend — but there’s a serious side to the story. The tourism board found that Aussies are flocking to New Zealand’s top snow resort in spring, and 20 per cent of us will use a sick day to get that Monday off.
We’re spending winter battling into work despite wheezing coughs and colds, before reaching breaking point at this time of year. Either we’re so rundown we get ill, or we end up using a sick day to recuperate. As many as one in five Australians admit to “piggybacking” off illnesses sweeping their office, Destination Queenstown revealed.
The pressure of not using our leave is becoming so great the stress is spilling into the rest of our lives — our relationships, parenting and self-confidence. “The cost is high,” Dr Read said. “People are saying they can’t go on.”
One in 10 Australians have reached the point where they’ve actually called in sick from a holiday destination. Getting this unhappy is not only bad for our personal lives, but makes us less effective at work, and less interested in our job. It makes business sense to encourage people to take their annual leave.
Yet in June, the Fair Work Commission granted businesses the right to let employees“cash out” up to two weeks’ paid leave per year. Unions said the decision could lead to a troubling situation where cashing out, rather than taking holiday, becomes the norm. “Annual leave is for rest and recreation — exchanging it for cash defeats its purpose,” Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney said.
Dr Read said the solution was for employers to make their staff feel like it was a positive thing to take leave. “I’d love to see companies create a culture of expecting people to take leave, so people don’t take sickies instead. The first thing is to role model. If people at the top are taking short breaks and long ones, they’re saying it’s OK to do the same,” she said.
“Sometimes people think they’re owed sick days because of overwork. We can’t communicate our needs for fear of recrimination. It’s like having an affair when your marriage isn’t working.”
She said workers needed to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, too. “It’s healthy to have a conversation if you’re doing extra hours or overloaded. It might be helpful to put something in writing and see if even part can be negotiated.
“If employers value their workers, hopefully they’ll appreciate them speaking up. It doesn’t mean you’re not good at your job or committed.”
Workers in wholesale, public administration, defence and agriculture are least likely to use their holidays, while people who work in construction, communications and leisure are most likely to take their annual leave, according to Roy Morgan research. And our unused leave is rising steadily, by 24 million days since 2006.
“We need to deal with the fear,” Dr Read said. “If you don’t identify the barrier, the resentment may build throughout the office. Some kind of break is vital for all of us.
“Leave needs to include the whole gamut of experiences: learning new things, meeting different people, experiencing different cultures and just down time.”
Our sick day habits and lack of proper time off just isn’t sustainable. If we start treating relaxation as an important part of our lives, we’ll be happier, more productive people.