Happy holidays

But why are we supposed to need more of them?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Just as Britain winds itself down for two weeks’ festive relaxation, so a familiar plethora of news stories claims that we do not have enough time off.

This year, we find that nearly one million Britons will be working Christmas Day (Trades Union Congress, or TUC) (1); that ‘Scrooge bosses’ are cutting seasonal bonuses and making staff pay for their Christmas office lunch (workplace analysts Labour Research) (2); and that what we really need are regional bank holidays, to give workers a break and boost local tourism (the Blairite think-tank Institute for Public Policy Research, or IPPR) (3).

No doubt by 3 January, or whenever we crawl back to our desks, we will be so worn out with thinking about how little time we had off work that we’ll be demanding sick pay for our post-traumatic seasonal disorder, or taking time off in lieu of worrying about the office.

Of course we need more holidays; and of course companies should pay for their staff’s obligatory Christmas party. This has nothing to do with meeting the EU bank holiday average, or rejuvenating local communities, or any of the other daft justifications that tend to be given – it’s about decent working conditions. But the (relative) lack of bank holidays is hardly the biggest problem facing working people in the UK. So why do trades unions and think-tanks get so hot under their white collars about it?

Let’s face it, the demand for more holidays is coming from the top. You don’t see workers demonstrating on the streets for a right to a Juneday or an almost-as-Good Friday; you don’t see placards demanding a 40 percent rise in time off. It is the likes of Matthew Taylor, of the IPPR, who says: ‘We work too hard in Britain, with long hours and few breaks, and we need holidays’, (4) and TUC General Secretary Elect Brendan Barber, who says: ‘The best employers give their staff two weeks’ paid leave at Christmas.’ (5)

And companies, despite reports of Scroogery and general all-round meanness, often seem quite sympathetic to these demands. Most major corporations now seem committed, at least publicly, to addressing the ‘work/life balance’ of their staff – recognising that leisure time is precious, and ensuring that their employees have time for a life outside work.

If all this results in more free time for employees, then that’s surely to the good. But this discussion often seems to be informed less by a positive appreciation of holidays than by a peculiarly downbeat view of work. To put it bluntly, the good things about work, such as the ability to earn money and the creative pressure that work engenders, tend to be seen as unattainable at best, and damaging at worst.

From an employees’ perspective, it should be said that the enthusiasm surrounding discussion of the ‘work-life balance’, in its various manifestations, stands in marked contrast to the silence surrounding most issues of pay. Can we be so sure that, given a choice between a raise and a Liverpool ‘Lennon Day’, workers in the north west of England would not still plump for the pay packet? If trades unions are arguing for time over money, they might stand more of a chance of success, but their members may not share these priorities.

The creative pressures of work, meanwhile, are increasingly posed in individualised terms such as workplace stress. Unions have become adept at arguing that work = stress, and employers are increasingly sensitive to the charge that they may be putting their staff under too much pressure (and mindful of the consequences of stress-related sick-leave).

As some have argued, the causes of what is currently known as workplace stress are often to be found less in the workplace than in other, deeper social changes (see Making everything hard work, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick). But to argue for more time out on the grounds that work makes you sick does not seem like a particularly healthy approach to industrial relations – or a recipe for great holidays.

So far as companies are concerned, there seems something odd about the kind of corporate strategy that counsels people to spend less time at work, and worries incessantly about what they could be doing at home. Bosses, you would think, are pretty justified in preaching the doctrine ‘Work is Good!’, just as their employees are justified in dissenting. But today’s employer seems hesitant about doing this, feeling the need continually to second-guess the best interests of their staff – whether Secretary Jane really should take time out for her son’s Nativity play, even though she hasn’t asked for it, or whether Singleton Sam really ought to be spending a bit more time in nightclubs, and a bit less time on the book-keeping.

Sensitive bosses might have the best of intentions, but there is a danger that man-management becomes just too intrusive. A boss’s place is to manage your work at work, not to manage your emotional needs in your own time. And if your boss gives off vibes that you really should be gone from your desk and doing something less boring instead, it hardly bodes well for office morale.

As for think-tanks and policy-wonks – everything is sacrificed on the altar of social inclusion, even the working day. The IPPR’s call for regional bank holidays has taken the obsession with finding new Shared National Experiences to a new low, where things don’t even have to be national, so long as they’re shared. Could a Shakespeare Day in the Midlands possibly foster a sense of civic pride and community capable of filling the void left by the end of car production? Would it ever boost tourism, given the state of the M6? And what does anybody ever do on a bank holiday, other than get as far away from their local environment as possible?

Nicky Gavron, deputy leader of the Greater London Assembly (GLA) and Labour candidate for the 2004 mayoral election, seemed quite into the idea of a London Day. ‘They have a “day of the city” in Moscow each year’, she said, before proceeding to explain that London Day could be like that, except that ‘we could have it on July 3, to commemorate the day London government was reborn’ (6). She might do better to wait for the turnout figures for the next mayoral election, to test the popularity of this idea among Londoners.

It says something about the triumph of capitalism when Moscow is hailed as a model, and nobody wants anybody to go to work. But don’t get too downhearted. spiked is only taking a week off (and a bit), and we’ll be back on Monday 30 December.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Work/life

(1) All I want for Christmas is my two weeks leave, TUC, 23 December 02

(2) Scrooge bosses cut seasonal bonuses, Observer, 22 December 2002

(3) ‘Labour planners want regional “local hero” bank holidays’, Sunday Times, 22 December 2002

(4) ‘Labour planners want regional “local hero” bank holidays’, Sunday Times, 22 December 2002

(5) All I want for Christmas is my two weeks leave, TUC, 23 December 02

(6) ‘Labour planners want regional “local hero” bank holidays’, Sunday Times, 22 December 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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