The concept of holiday when you work for yourself was one of the biggest surprises for me when I became a freelancer. When you calculate your day rate you work out an amount that will enable you to earn a yearly figure you're comfortable with, once you've accounted for 25 days holiday and bank holidays (bank holidays are never the same though!). However the actual experience is a little more complicated than that.
My first year of freelancing made me acutely aware of what each day I didn't work meant for my personal income. Coupled with a sense that if you say no to a new client, they may not come back and ask you to work for them again (not true by the way - if anything it's the opposite scenario) made for some long weeks, taking on of too many projects, and letting my supposed 'lifestyle choice' of working for myself bleed into my weekends and evenings.
My second year represented a shift. I became more single minded about exactly what kind of work I enjoyed doing, which kinds of clients I enjoyed working with and which aspects had a negative impact on the kind of life I wanted to live (which by this point included living three days a week at the coast with my partner). Working this out involved dropping my biggest client, a super aspirational brand I had always thought would be my dream client to work for, yet one that took up huge amounts of my time through workload and travel to their offices in Paris. Not a decision I expected to make, but most definitely the right one. However, saying no to work and taking more time for myself was still something that I struggled with.
Year 3 was yet another change (and anyone who tells you that working for yourself doesn't involve continual change is lying!) and it's been a far happier year for it (and, ironically for securing new clients and doing better work). That change was taking more time to do things I love. Travel, and finding new experiences through travel is hugely important to me and at the start of the year I made the conscious decision to take more time out for holiday, and experiences that matter to me personally, and stress less about the work I'd be turning down. To embrace the core benefit of being a freelancer - flexibility.
A snowboarding holiday in Switzerland, visiting friends in Dubai on route to the Maldives (a second honeymoon), seeing whales in the Azores, a week at a fitness and mindfulness retreat in The New Forest (a quick credit here to www.pushmindandbody.com) a city break in Stockholm and writing now from having recently returned from a month travelling around Indonesia and Malaysia, it has been a year of embracing the concept of holiday to say the least.
More than this, it has made me realise the importance of travel in re-engaging with your working life as much as (and potentially more than) escaping it. When I used to be unhappy in my working life I would crave my next holiday, booking my next as soon as I'd set down from my last, in order to ensure I had something to look forward to. What a crazy way to exist, setting aside the moments you feel happy for 25 days a year rather than the other 340! Now when I travel I find myself re-energised by projects I am engaged with at home, and mentally focused on the elements in my life I want to continue to push for the very reason that I'm not trying to escape them.
This shift has made me think about the role of holiday for businesses and individuals and why the amount of holiday we are given in traditional roles is often so restricted. I have friends who have recently started in new roles where companies are absolutely unwilling to negotiate on the number of days of holiday they offer, yet negotiations on pay, benefits and even working location are up for grabs. Yet other companies are (successfully) exploring the concept of a flexible holiday policy and finding that employees on average take 25 days, with some taking less, some more, but all happier with the flexibility and independence they've been afforded. Virgin, Netflix, Groupon, Evernote, Eventbrite, and Survey Monkey all fall into this camp.
I've worked with individuals who always seem to struggle to use their holiday allowance each year (a concept I've never understood). I have one friend who used to hate being away from his daily habits and routines so much that he used his own knowledge and training in life coaching to coax himself into being excited by the concept of being away from his normal day to day existence.
There are countries where the concept of taking holiday is almost frowned upon. In the US workers aren’t legally entitled to a single day of paid holiday and on average employees received 15 days in 2015. In contrast, France embraces the culture of taking all of August off to spend time with friends and family. Since 1999 employees at EDF who work more than 35 hours a week have been eligible for an additional 23 days off a year on top of their standard 27 days. Open-minded countries like Sweden continue to explore different holiday allowance schemes and have recently embraced the 6-hour working day culture.
When you factor in the number of bank holidays that other countries have, the UK doesn’t fare so well in the holiday stakes, with most of the European markets having more total days off (including public holidays) than us. When did holiday become something that lost its importance and why should both employees and companies embrace its re-charging qualities to the benefit of the individual and the organisation? I've been contemplating this question on our recent travels, resulting in the following musings.
(1) Being lifted above the day-to-day (yes, a slightly bad pun on air travel) removes us from the tried and tested routine – this one is pretty basic, but I think we forget how many things we try to cram into every day (particularly in cities like London) – life admin, work admin, stressful work roles, stressful commutes. I’m not sure anyone is worthwhile to a company when they get into an ‘automatic’ way of doing things, and a break from that day to day routine allows for a refreshed view on how you organise yourself and your role.
(2) Your mind re-learns how to see the wood for the trees – on my recent trip we went to Borneo. In the 3 days we spent trekking around trying to find orangutans I found my brain became quiet and I remembered how to spot small details, see layers of colour, hear noises, in short, become alert again. It’s so easy to become a multi-tasking hero who actually forgets how to focus on anything very well. Mindfulness has become hugely popular in response to this, but an eye-opening holiday I believe has a similar benefit.
(3) You remember that the world doesn’t revolve around you – this particularly applies for me when we travel to developing countries. Often a whirlwind of noise, people, and an entirely different set of priorities that lead their communities, they remind you of what a small part of the world you really are. Why is this important? It’s so easy to get caught up in the small things, the politics and the stress of a particular project. The skill of being able to see what a small part that stress is in the overall scheme of things is one that companies should be encouraging employees to learn.
(4) Doing nothing for a while is sometimes the best way for creative ideas to flow – a friend of mine runs an entire business based on the idea that process and structure has led to many of us losing our visceral creativity, and he works to help you get back to that state. For me, some of my best ideas come when I’m removed from the situation and I can just 'be'. Cheesy and yogi-like as that sounds, I stand by it as one of the best ways to foster creative thought.
(5) Problem solving skills come to the fore when you’re travelling – this probably applies more when you’ve chosen to traverse a difficult country rather than spend 2 weeks on a sunbed in sunny Spain, but it’s important. This kind of travel holds challenges that you have to be creative, pragmatic and calm to face and these are hugely important skills, particularly as you become more senior in an organisation.
(6) Travel brings out the risk-taker in you – I’m sure I’m not the only one who decided that doing something like jumping off a cliff whilst paragliding on holiday, or kayaking down the Amazon at night while tipsy was a good idea. I’m not advocating that this level of risk taking is necessary to bring us out of ourselves, but trying anything new on holiday seems more enticing. We approach holidays in a mindset that says ‘I’ll only have one chance to do this’. If we could only bring a bit more of that into our day to day lives, we’d probably all make decisions geared to our own happiness more frequently.
And on that note, I’ll go back to planning that next big trip……