Taking Lithuanian leave

Malcolm Gillies asks: how much time off do we really need or deserve?

September 8, 2011

Aren’t holidays nice? Despite the recall of world leaders from their holidays to face currency crises (Sarkozy, Merkel), riots (Cameron) or an impending hurricane (Obama), we do need to take reasonable time out to recharge the batteries.

I went to Romania and to Canada for four lovely weeks of sunshine, healthy food, breathtaking views and plenty of exercise: all the things vice-chancellors tend to skimp on during the year. In fact, it was the first time I had taken a full month off in ages.

Why, I wondered in retrospect? And then I remembered: families. Those of us who were without children often worked the “midnight shift” of summer so that those with families could make the most of the school holidays. We took our time out when the opera or skiing seasons were in full swing, or just didn’t take the time out in our panic for career advancement or job preservation.

So, halfway across the prairies, I was a bit put out by an article in The Globe and Mail newspaper titled, “We work hard, they enjoy life”. John Ibbitson, the paper’s Ottawa bureau chief, informed his readers about the Mercer international holiday league table. Canada ranked bottom in 2009, the most recent figures available, with a miserable statutory minimum of 10 holidays and nine public holidays a year, two fewer even than the Chinese. US workers, often without minimum requirements, evidently did a bit better on average, but not much.

What’s more, from another poll we learn that 58 per cent of Canadians didn’t even take their full 19 days, while 89 per cent of the French took their full 40 days, an equal entitlement with the Finns and the Russians.

But top of the holiday league, and on the receiving end of Ibbitson’s ire, were the Brazilians and Lithuanians. With 41 days of annual holiday, they worked a whole month less each year than the Canadians.

The Globe’s line is clear: North Americans and Asians work hard; Europeans and, er, Australians (with a total of only 28 days) evidently don’t (Ibbitson added about the last that this “may be why they always seem to be wherever you are”).

Where was the UK in the holiday league? With a minimum of 36 days - and more like 40-plus for many in universities - it ranked highly. But beware the fine print. As Mercer points out, the statutory minimum holiday amount increased only in 2009 from 24 to 28 days, although some variance in practice regarding inclusion of public holidays in annual leave entitlements is noted. And many employers, including in higher education, often display additional generosity around Christmas or Easter.

Still gazing at the prairies and reading the other pages of (generally) dire economic news in The Globe, I had to ask: can we afford such generous holidays any more? Specifically, can British universities afford to spend up to 10 per cent of their entire income (increasingly, student derived) on…staff holidays? Will our students, many working right through the summer if they’re lucky, see this as good value for money for their growing debt ledger? And looking further afield, and keeping in mind those hard-working Canadians, can we be competitive with countries that work longer or harder, or both longer and harder?

Then again, what about well-being? I thought back to the reasons why I had eschewed long summer holidays: to let families go on holiday together. After all, lack of vacation time can damage relationships, alienate seldom-seen children and lead to injuries and errors at work. But is there real evidence that the Lithuanians, French, Finns or Russians, with eight weeks of holiday, or the British with seven, are more “well” than the Canadians or the Americans on closer to four (or even as little as two weeks for more junior employees)?

I suspect that holidays, like pensions and pay, will soon be yet another area of diminishing entitlement. In a more competitive academic world, as we teach more accelerated courses and seek year-round usage of expensive estate, those holidays will be seen as an indulgence - an inconvenience - not just in the UK but also across continental Europe.

A friend at an “old” university reminded me that his contract did not even specify the amount of leave. He was “entitled to reasonable holidays”. But, as with pensions and pay, our measure of reasonableness is undoubtedly changing - and downwards.

Then I smelled a rat from these cunning Canadians. Sure, they enjoy only 19 days of holiday, but how many hours a week do they work on average?

The web reveals half a dozen different ways of calculating this, but I like the analysis at www.visualeconomics.com/the-state-of-the-40-hour-workweek. Canada is bottom of the league, working on average 30.6 hours, against the Americans on 33.6, the Australians on 34.5, the French on 37.5 and the industrious British on 39.6, with the Turks clocking up an amazing 49.7 hours.

So, what’s better for you or your institution: to work fewer hours over more weeks, or more hours over fewer weeks? The institutional interest, I suspect, would tend to be the latter for academics (during exam time they sometimes slave away for up to 80 hours a week), but the former for administrative staff.

Perhaps the “wherever you are” Australians, sitting towards the middle of the pack on both scores, get it about right.

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