On taking holiday

“I have booked a day of leave for childcare and now I realise I don’t need it. I don’t really want to go to work – I really need some downtime, but I feel guilty not going.”

When I managed postdocs and academics, I used to spend quite a lot of time encouraging and checking that people were taking their holidays. Holidays in academia can be weird. Despite working in a University for 26 years, I never managed to convince my grandparents that we didn’t have the same times off as the students (especially not in the long summer break). Times out of term are actually pretty precious at least to academics because this is the time when there is a chance we might be able to stop firefighting, catch up with marking and course planning, and maybe even attend to research projects or scholarship activities. This time is precious particularly for research academics for whom esteem and career progression likely depend heavily on research outputs and grant winning. So academics who teach can’t take holiday during student terms because they are teaching, and are reluctant to take holiday in the student holidays because that is eating into precious research time.

Some other barriers to taking holidays are internal: the fear that even one day out will lead to someone else being ahead of you in the race to a lecturer position or a grant application (a particular issue with postdocs) or the threat of the state of the inbox when you get back. Some barriers are external: the need to earn additional income where possible or deadlines, conferences and meetings scheduled outside term time. (Of course, when travel was possible and for those without other constraints such as school holidays, many academics managed to combine holidays with conferences and thus get to places they may not otherwise have visited). When I started in academia, no-one monitored your holiday (they did by the time I left!) and whilst I expect some people took advantage of that, many of the people I worked with took far less than they were entitled to.

There is so much evidence that taking holidays is beneficial in terms of preventing burn-out, allowing new perspectives and where needed, resting physically. But it appears to be so hard to do for ourselves. This is where supervisors, line managers and mentors can be really important for academics and researchers, and where peer support can also help.

Top 3 things line managers and mentors can do to help people take the time out that they need to:

  • Check that people have planned time off and help them manage their concerns about doing so
  • Take time out themselves and talk about it openly – model self-awareness and self-care (and do not answer emails during the time you are away – I know it’s hard, but if you have planned it right and managed expectations before you go, everything important will still be there when you get back. Unplug!)
  • Do not set deadlines for important things (promotion cases, grant funding, exam marking) immediately after widely adopted holidays e.g. 3rd January

The more we normalise taking time out, the easier it becomes to do. Academic workload culture is pretty toxic right now – so we need to start talking differently.

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