Time to Recharge
On sabbaticals, "unlimited" time off, and rethinking vacation
Manchester is a town primarily known for two things: 1) great music and 2) terrible weather.
Correlation isn’t causation, as every statistics nerd knows. But there’s a connection here: some believe cities like Seattle and Manchester punch above their musical weight because wet weather leads to more time indoors, searching for a hobby—learning how to play the guitar, for example—to keep you occupied in a city where it rains more than half of the year. Others, including an incredibly biased local-news outlet says there’s nothing to worry about: there are much wetter places than Manchester—look at all those cities in Northern Ireland, for instance. At least Manchester gets a few weeks of sun during the summer holidays.
But for some (read: yours truly) those few weeks of staring strangely at a glowing circle in the sky would be missed. My parents, who emigrated from Northern Ireland a few years before I was born, would both work during summer. And without a local family network (or with one, but with brothers and sisters who had their own kids to manage) they’d take the same steps as many folks today: lean on the grandparents. So, when summer commenced, we’d hop on a plane, three small kids armed with a British Airways travel pack, colouring-in pages and wax crayons secured safely inside, grasping tightly onto the hand of a lovely flight attendant we’d just met, and take the 70 minute flight from Manchester to Belfast. We’d get collected by an uncle on the other side, and spend our summers in Northern Ireland—the only place wetter than the city I called home.
My mum and dad would come when they could, but vacation days were hard to come by back then. My mum recalls 10 days of paid holiday when we were kids, plus 8 public holidays. They’d head to Ireland for the last week of summer, using one precious week of their holidays, saving the second for a return trip at Christmas. Today, UK workers receive 28 days, including public holidays. The increase can be attributed to the EU Working Time Directive, introduced in 1993, which cited working excessive hours as "a major cause of stress, depression, and illness.” The directive aimed to better protect the health and safety of European citizens, giving workers across the region the right to four full weeks of paid annual leave. It wasn’t put into law in the UK until 1998 (which had no statutory entitlement before then) with some in the UK Government attempting to block its progress. 28 days is great, but places the UK in a mid-table position—they’re not fighting relegation, but they’re unlikely to qualify for the Champion’s League. Spain, the country I call home, sits higher with 36 vacation days a year, while Estonians enjoy 28 days of paid holiday, supplemented with 11 public holidays, topping them out at 39 glorious days off.
Counting holiday days might one day become a thing of the past, with an increasing number of companies offering unlimited vacation time for their employees. It sounds great, in theory. “You like holidays? Well, HAVE ALL THE HOLIDAYS YOU WANT!” It has fast become a signal of a forward-thinking organisation, and a powerful weapon in the fight to attract and retain great talent. It’s no wonder there was a 178% increase in job positions mentioning it between 2015-2019, and why 4% of US companies now offer the perk.
But while the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, his second greatest trick was unlimited time off. These policies are fraught with problems. One key issue is that employees don’t accrue vacation days, meaning no end-of-year carryover, and no payout of unused time at the year-end or on termination of employment. When living in SF one HR worker informed me this policy was established after a startup went bankrupt, couldn’t pay owed holidays to employees, and a legal precedent was set: Californian companies must have the cash on hand to pay all accrued holidays by year end. That unlimited time off policy might be nothing more than a creative accounting loophole.
Making matters more complicated is the fact that, in the US, vacation hits different. This is the only industrialised nation where workers are not legally entitled to a single day of paid holiday. Where 1 in 4 workers have zero paid time off. Where, for those vacation days that are offered, 55% aren’t used, leading to 768 million days unused and 236 million forfeited every year. That’s a lot of sun loungers going empty. And research has shown employees with unlimited time off actually take 2 vacation days LESS each year than those with a “regular” vacation policy.
And then we get into the office politics of it all. It’s no accident that Netflix, the original famed “No Vacation Policy” company, is also the one with the famous “keeper test,” where a team can immediately decide if someone isn’t pulling their weight, leading to an instant firing. This is the company that recently let go of 450 employees, including “an impressive array of journalists” who were fired without notice. The bigger tech companies stretch out and disguise their keeper tests as performance reviews, manager feedback surveys and OKRs, and even giants like Meta (née Facebook) are asking managers to identify “low performers” in anticipation of future layoffs.
With these headwinds, how do you think unlimited time off policies play out? Taking more holiday than your boss? There’s no way any sane employee would do it. Not when performance reviews are the heart of your salary, bonus, potential promotion, and the likelihood of keeping your job in an unsure environment. You’ll be seen as lacking commitment, not a team player. And if you’re thinking this, you can bet your manager is thinking it too. And their manager. And their manager. And so on. And so on. It’s fucked-up game theory, keeping you at your laptop, turtles all the way up.
Those summers in Ireland? I look back on them with love. 6 weeks with my Granny Mo, who would’ve turned 94 last Saturday, who let us get away if not with murder, then close to it. She was with us long enough to meet my own daughter, and watch the generations continue for one round longer than her own parents had. She worked as a cleaner in the local school, her summers were her own, so she was there to help with childcare. And what kid wouldn’t want to spend 6 weeks under Grandparent Law?! I see how much leeway my kids get with theirs, and the joy they all find amidst the chaos.
Imagine picking your kids up after 6 weeks with their grandparents. All that sugar. All that independence. One uncle would bring over his PC for a few weeks in the middle of summer, and I’d sit inside playing Tie Fighter and Sim City 2000. It could have been glorious sunshine outside, I wouldn’t have noticed. Another uncle would pick the three of us up from the airport and drive us home, banging out some new dance compilation from the current club de jour. I still know every mix cue on the Back Room CD from 1995’s Cream Anthems, my ears enthralled by their introduction to house music, sounds from another galaxy, audible colours my brain had yet to experience, basslines thumping through the best in-car subwoofer my uncle could’ve afforded at the time. Those trips in the front seat of his ride nudged my life subtly, but irrevocably, in a different direction.
Ireland wasn’t our only holiday. I remember a trip to Florida when I was around 8 being a huge deal, and trips to France and Spain became more commonplace as my parents started getting jobs with better holiday allowances, and the slow creep to four paid weeks began to become the norm. But, most summers would be spent there. By the time my parents arrived we’d have spent a month and a half without them, running riot around a small village in Co. Tyrone, going “up Main St and down the same street” as the locals tell it. We’d then spend a week together as a family before turning the car around, returning on the Belfast to Stranraer ferry, the preferred mode of transport for a family of five without a pair of sea legs between them. I’ve made it a personal policy to avoid boats today—having learned this the hard way, on too many holidays to count. My family will, one day, vacation in a place they can watch whales, my feet remaining firmly on solid ground.
One of the downsides of working as an independent / consultant / freelancer (delete as appropriate) is the lack of stability. Not knowing when work might dry up. Or where the next project might appear. Post-pandemic, we spent four months with zero income—the project pipeline fell completely dry, we slipped between various hastily-assembled government safety nets, and spent a significant chunk of 2020 wondering where work was going to come from. I was—and remain—incredibly thankful to the friends who helped work find its way back to me.
But the upside of being independent is there in the name—the freedom. The ability to run your own schedule, be your own boss, and make decisions that you feel are the best for you and your family. Being able to take go on holiday without worrying how many days off you’ve accrued, needing to balance it with the fear of being replaced, or anxious that taking your dream vacation will somehow, like a butterfly flapping its wings in Mexico, lead to you being passed over for that promotion you’ve been chasing for years.
With that freedom comes a chance to think about vacations in a different way. The need for a regular income will be a key driver of how much holiday you take, but your own insecurities, your ego, and attitude to risk will also play a part, as you battle with what Lee McKay Doe called “internalised capitalism.” Many friends who are independent have spoken about the discomfort that comes from turning down paid work to take a vacation with their family. You might, like one child-free freelance friend, work every hour that comes your way, but down tools for 2 weeks every 2 years to drag your TV into the back garden, put the beers on ice and watch the Euros or World Cup. Others have been even more creative when experimenting with time off—many will recall the famous Stefan Sagmeister TED Talk from 2009, where he talked about closing his studio for a full year after being open for seven, a cadence that led Dan Pink to suggest we replace “going on sabbatical” with “taking a Saegmeister.”
“Right now we spend about 25 years of our lives learning, then there are another 40 years that's really reserved for working, and then tacked on at the end of it are about 15 years for retirement. And I thought it might be helpful to basically cut off five of those retirement years and intersperse them in between those working years. That's clearly enjoyable for myself. But probably even more important is that the work that comes out of this year flows back into the company and into society at large rather than benefiting a grandchild or two.”
— Stefan Sagmeister, The Power of Time Off
Sagmeister also touches on Ferran Adrià, owner of El Bulli, who closed his restaurant for 5 months of the year to research and develop new innovative cooking techniques. Bill Gates takes two “thinking weeks” every year, heading alone, to a cabin, in what I suggest we call “taking a Bon Iver.” These people aren’t undertaking new approaches to holidays for the fun of it—they know that the success of their business depends on recharging the creative batteries that are all too easy to deplete.
A sabbatical isn’t an option for everyone. Neither is unlimited time off. But job perks like these are more common, and widely available, than they ever have been, offering a chance for deep, intentional time off. A chance to take actually unplug and unwind. And not “quickly responding to email” from a nice hotel, a beautiful sunset screaming to be seen, wasted in the background. I’ve been there too many times. Even though a vacation with kids can feel like a “parenting away game”, there’s value for the entire family in taking a holiday together, with research showing it improves both parents’ wellbeing and childrens’ general skills. And for those who run their own company, or sit on senior leadership teams, it provides a chance to lead by example.
The annual cadence of life in the Mediterranean, the place I call home, is different from the rest of the world. August’s extreme heat makes it difficult to do anything. You might have once heard something akin to “Spain and Italy close down for all of August” and wondered how true that was. Didn’t you go there one August, and everywhere was still open? It probably was, in a holiday destination. But even in a tourist hotspot like Barcelona, most restaurants and independent retail stores will pull their shutters down for the whole month. This year my friend shocked the local community by telling them his bakery would remain open for August in its entirety.
You might see where I’m going with this. I’ve decided to take some time off. A few client projects have wrapped up, with nothing new on the horizon. Work had been steady this year, with interesting clients and projects—I’ve had the chance to work on projects as varied as sexual wellness, psychedelic investment and the circular economy so far in 2022—so I’m in a good place to down tools, and won’t be taking any new client projects until September.
And I’m going to take this opportunity to take a break from the newsletter too. One aspect of The New Fatherhood I sometimes overlook is its role in holding me accountable as the dad I want to be. And as strange as it feels to stop publishing this newsletter for a significant chunk of time, I want to practice what I preach. Would my parents have taken those 6 weeks off, taking summer together in Ireland as a family, if they could? There’s no way to know. But the opportunity has presented itself for me and my family. And, as Dan Pink helpfully reminded us a few months ago, we’re much more likely to regret the actions we didn’t take than the ones we did.
I love writing this thing. And feel incredibly lucky to be able to do this, because this isn’t a fire that I want to let burn out. Looking at the path forged by folks like Stefan Sagmeister and Ferran Adrià, I know that time away from this newsletter will ensure it remains fresh for you, and fresh for me. I’m going to spend time being more present with my family, working through my tsundoku pile of books, having deep discussions with close friends, and contemplating what the next chapter of life and work might look like.
This is the last piece of new writing you’ll see from me until September 6th, when we’ll be two days into the new school year, and I will return refreshed. At least I hope.
Wishing you all the very best this summer.
A few small admin bits
This week has been all about wrapping up loose ends—client invoices that needed to be raised and chased, emails duly despatched, and any non-urgent to-dos snoozed until September.
For the newsletter, I’ve prepared two weeks of “TNF Reruns,” which will be updated versions of previous essays with a little extra shine. I’ll still be writing over the next 6 weeks—it’ll be hard not to—but without a weekly publishing deadline. I imagine it’ll feel different. For those who have forked over their hard-earned cash for TNF, you might see a few short updates from me during this time. But you might not! So I’ll be pausing subscriptions for August. For those spending time in the Geneva community you’ll likely see me there, and for those in London we’re already trying to lock down a date for TNF drinks when I’m over there in August. Keep an eye on the new “London” channel for details when they come.
Bumper “getting them all out before vacation” edition
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Branding by Selman Design. Illustration by Tony Johnson. Tony also did an excellent second animated illustration this week, but it was too big for the newsletter. Or more accurately, the newsletter was too long to include it. So I’ll post it on on Twitter. Thanks to Katie-Gawkins Haar and Mike Sowden for nudging me in the right direction on the vacation decision. Have a wonderful summer!
Read this after discovering I've been over-counting my time off by five days (misread some poorly worded HR doc *head slap*). So, needless to say, I'm jealous of this extended break you're giving yourself. Well earned!
Playing some For Emma, Forever Ago today and wishing you a good break with your family. I hope you get a few "Bon Iver" moments for you too.