© Jonathan McHugh

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The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard University and advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care

Was your summer holiday refreshing? Or are you secretly still out of puff? Many executives who powered through the pandemic with no Easter break are approaching an uncertain autumn insufficiently revived. In a year of tough decisions about lay-offs and strategy, an awful truth is dawning: the ability to rest is a competitive advantage in the workplace. And many of us are very bad at it. 

We all need to learn the art of holiday. We train to improve our work, but we don’t practice our rest. We assume that recovery will just seep into the gaps left between scheduled meetings, but then find we don’t know how to handle spare time. I was horrified to discover on my two-week summer break that I’ve forgotten how to relax. Reading novels, a usually fail-safe method, failed to stop my mind raking over the uncertainties ahead. My pledge to digitally detox collapsed after a day. My only true moments of respite were in the Cornish sea, listening to the crashing of waves and focusing on staying afloat. The strictures of mindfulness gurus, “be present”, never seemed more apt.

The pandemic has made it vital to be on our mettle, and also harder to rest. Making the right decisions this autumn will require calm, objectivity, courage and flexibility — all of which tend to diminish with burnout. Some studies suggest that stress can exacerbate the human tendency in unfamiliar situations to narrow the number of options we consider. Under prolonged stress, we may also jump to conclusions, because it is comforting to impose certainty on changing events.

Even before Covid-19 hit Europe, one British chief executive told me that he’d noticed some staff becoming less co-operative and having narrower horizons. Looming uncertainty about Brexit, a US-China trade war and bad news about climate change, he said, had left many hunkering down into their core roles. Since then, the economic challenges presented by Covid-19 have combined with worries about home schooling and elderly parents to leave many workers with little emotional bandwidth. Leaders must watch out for the hidden effects of cumulative tiredness on themselves and their teams.

Unfortunately, the virus has made it harder to reboot in the familiar ways. For parents whose children have been off school for months, holidaying together is less of a novelty than usual, requiring extra efforts to inject fun. Financial worries don’t help. Nor does fraught travel: at our Italian hotel last week, some English guests who had planned to break their return journey in France were plotting to avoid UK quarantine by driving home without stopping.

A few companies already see it as part of their role to help staff recharge and reboot. Some have emulated Google’s old policy of giving employees time to pursue creative “side projects”. Others have experimented with four-day weeks: New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian has claimed significant improvements in both profits and productivity as a result, and a trial by Microsoft Japan boosted productivity by 40 per cent, no mean feat in a country with a word — karoshi — for death from overwork.

In their book Time Off: A Practical Guide to Building Your Rest Ethic and Finding Success Without the Stress, authors John Fitch and Max Frenzel advocate a weekly “No Chronos Day”. This is not a tech shabbat but rather a switching from one ancient Greek concept of time governed by minutes (chronos), to one governed by quality and flow (kairos). This echoes current management ideas around engineering “flow states” to improve innovation. It also reminded me of something that used to be called Sunday.

In the 1980s and 1990s the John Lewis Partnership, a company with Quaker roots, fought an ultimately fruitless battle to resist Sunday trading in England. The high priests of modernity wanted an economy with round the clock service, where you could buy a pair of shoes whenever you wanted. These same people despised French towns which closed for lunch, welcomed the decline of religion, and wanted Sunday to be as monochrome as Saturday and preferably full of material consumption. They did not foresee a future in which technology would make us addicted to busyness. Looking back, the Quaker attitude was right: unless you actively preserve a day of rest, the world will steal it from you.

Political leaders are no exception. Humphry Wakefield, the father-in-law of Dominic Cummings, who is chief of staff to the UK prime minister, has reportedly said that Boris Johnson is too exhausted to continue for much longer. Downing Street has strenuously denied this claim, but it is clearly true that a prime minister juggling the responsibilities of office with a new baby, while recovering from serious illness, needs some protection from ultra-busyness. “If you put a horse back to work when it’s injured it will never recover,” Sir Humphry is supposed to have said. This could be a metaphor for many of us, especially those energised by crises: we are perhaps the most reluctant to let go.

The widespread use of Zoom should mean less need for presenteeism. But Version 1.0 has meant being “always on”, making it harder to divide work from play. Version 2.0 needs to mean smart working, and smart resting.

A true holiday appears unproductive, something that the Puritan work ethic in us resists. Instead of enjoying the view, we use time off to make to-do lists, set life goals, read improving books. My personal goal? Become a recovering workaholic. And sneak in a staycation once the kids are back at school.

Letters in response to this column:

The ‘busyness’ addiction is a hard habit to shake / From Hilda Burke, London W6, UK

What bliss, to get paid more for taking holidays / From Charlie Coode, Founder, Coode Associates, London TW9, UK

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