You need a break

As someone who started their working life in the Northern Hemisphere, one of the hardest adjustments to make is that because Christmas coincides with summer, antipodeans take all their holiday in one big helping.

Or at least they did until the late 1980s.

When I first arrived in Wellington, New Zealand I found the summer break hard to cope with. In those days the city  closed down between Christmas Eve and Waitangi day (February 6).

For six weeks it was nigh on impossible to buy a cooked lunch, get one’s teeth fixed or car repaired.

Trains and buses ran reduced timetables. It was even harder to get anyone to make a business decision. Woe betide anyone who didn’t get their budgets signed-off before December 24th.

Australia less sleepy

Australia, at least Sydney and Melbourne, weren’t so comprehensively sleepy over summer, but you’d still have difficulty getting in touch with people between Christmas and Australia day. I suspect regional Australia was as shuttered as New Zealand.

Although the politicians somehow still manage to score extended summer breaks, these days Wellington and Auckland start buzzing (albeit at a slightly reduced pace) a few days after Christmas while Sydney and Melbourne barely pause at all. I know from experience bosses pressure many employees, particularly in retail jobs, to work longer hours at this time of year.

Close down

Yet even now many companies and departments close down for two or three weeks. Some newspapers stop publishing, TV channels run reduced schedules and some businesses offer reduced services. It is not the four, five or six-week shut down enjoyed by earlier generations, but there’s a distinct feeling the city is depopulated and the resorts are crowded.

Most Northern Europeans take no more than a week or so around Christmas.

In England, people generally work until December 24th and are back at their desks by January 2nd, or maybe the next day if the public holiday falls on a weekend. Scots get an extra day’s holiday for Hogmanay.

Public holidays

Poms typically get a couple of weeks off in their summer along with a healthy swag of public holidays (Bank Holidays) throughout the year. Generally they have enough leave days left over to take a third small break. The French still take a month in mid-year. During August Parisians leave town en masse as invading hoards of plaid-clad American tourists invade.

The British work roughly as many days as Australians and, thanks to recent law changes, New Zealanders. Other Northern European countries work fewer days. Interestingly these other nations tend to have higher worker productivity rates.

In my view, the antipodean habit of having one long annual break over Christmas is not as useful or as productive as the Northern European tradition of taking a short mid-Winter Christmas break and a relatively short summer break. I also suspect the one long Christmas break is easier lost to a demanding job than the two breaks enjoyed by Europeans.

Speaking from a personal, and not a researched point of view, the good thing about Europe’s two or three break system is it enables one to keep fresher. I’ve found that working 11 months then resting for one month is harder than working a few months en bloc and taking shorter breaks. This is particularly true if your work involves creative thinking – and let’s face it, most Knowledge Workers need to think creatively.

A mid-winter holiday

I’d like to see New Zealand embrace Matariki, the Maori winter solstice, as a short mid-winter holiday. It would also be a good excuse for an extra public holiday – New Zealanders go for too long without a break at that time of year. I’m sure Australia can think up a suitable excuse for a similar festival.

With all the talk of 24 times 7 operations, Knowledge Workers are finding it increasingly hard to take any leave at all. That’s  not wise. It hurts your effectiveness. You might not get away from your desk for a whole fortnight at once, but you should try to escape for two or three weeklong breaks during the course of the year. You’ll be more productive for it.