On the rare occasions that I would see people in 2020 and they’d ask how I’d been, my standard answer was “Same ol’, same ol’.” I grew to be pretty grateful to be able to give that answer. I remember observing other people’s goings-on from a distance with a second-hand sense of discomfort and overwhelm.
Wow, you’re starting a new job / moving / getting married / having a baby / making funeral arrangements during all of THIS?
But really, as long as you’re still on this side of the sod, life just keeps happening. Sometimes in dribs and drabs, and other times it Just. Won’t. Stop.
Then 2021 arrived and I joined that other club. For an assortment of reasons, there weren’t opportunities to process all the things that happened at the time or any time soon after. Because more things kept happening, while “all this” was still going on.
By the time I took a week’s vacation, three main things occurred. Initially, just sitting and staring into space for periods of time seemed like a fine use of my time. I just needed to be… fallow.
Then I realized that I actually needed substantially more than a week off. (There were a number of reasons I couldn’t take more time off then; I’m no workaholic.) And there was a roller coaster of emotions. Thoughts and feelings would come up at random times, unrelated to where I was or what I was doing. But very much related to things that had happened some time ago, for which there’d been no time or space for processing.
For those who’ve been to university, it reminds me of the common phenomenon that when students go home for breaks, like at Christmas or after exams, and it’s no longer go-go-go, they promptly get sick.
I think mental health works similarly, particularly over the past year and a half at least. For those who haven’t had a chance to stop for a while, I am sorry. For those whose disconnect time was actually a furlough or layoff, I am sorry. Time off doesn’t count if it brings its own luggage trolley of new stresses.
We need time, space, and resources to put body and soul together again, as my dad would say. But not everyone is afforded the luxury of those things.
Experiences demand our respect and attention as much as people do. Even more so if they’re experiences involving other people. Our bodies and brains remember and store it all, as long as necessary.
I wasn’t fully refreshed or renewed when I went back to work the following Monday, but some space and opacity had been cleared in my brain. I could focus better and was more productive. As we explored with alternatives to the 40-hour work week, science has backed up the idea of increasing productivity from working less.
In addition to helping slow down and clear out our noggins, time to disconnect, especially regularly, also helps keep us out of those deep (often problematic) mental or psychological ruts. Which are so hard to dig ourselves out of when we only have a short break, or no break.
Years ago I worked for a company with a number of offices internationally, and in the summer it was always slow and frustrating to get things done when we required input from any of the European offices. Co-workers and I would joke that France was closed for July, and Sweden was closed for August.
I have since learned that this was not just a phenomenon of that company, and that Denmark is also closed for August.
I know someone who is American, but who has worked for European companies for some time, and has declared that she will never work for an American company again. Having not worked for a North American company for some years, and having grown appreciative of how the other half (of the world) works, I am inclined to agree with her. I also don’t joke about people taking long vacations any more, either.
That said, I still can’t imagine what I’d do with a sabbatical. Especially a sabbatical where I didn’t have some big plan or goal to accomplish, like writing a novel or something. I bet if you asked an assortment of people what they’d do with millions of dollars, they could list off a bunch of things. But if you asked what they’d do with a big chunk of time… they’d blank. It probably also wouldn’t occur to them that “nothing” would be a perfectly valid answer.
At a previous company I worked for, there was a policy in place where people could take three paid months off for whatever reason, if they’d worked for the company for at least a year. One guy used it when he and his wife had a baby. No one else ever did.
At least two of us had the same idea – we were holding it in reserve in case we ever had to go take care of our parents or something similar. We never considered or discussed just taking it for ourselves. We never considered taking it just to have an extended period of time off. It was banked for an emergency, even though that wasn’t a requirement of the policy.
Of course, it was also a small team, so we were always acutely aware of how much taking any time off would affect our teammates. Which doesn’t help with being able to disconnect when you do need or want time off.
Larger companies aren’t really any different, though. Have you ever worked somewhere with sufficient bodies and cross-functionality that a person being gone for a couple of weeks, let alone for months, didn’t cause issues?
There’s a reason people come back from vacations or other forms of leave and promptly quit. They got time and space to observe all this from a distance, and they didn’t like it. They processed it, and the results weren’t good. They realized they and their colleagues (and quite possibly their families) were frogs, and the pot had been boiling for some time.
I suspect mat leave works like that, too, at times. Kids may poop on you and deprive you of sleep, but they never schedule 4 p.m. meetings on Fridays.
I have a friend who is starting a new job, as is his wife, along with taking on several other life changes, all at once. His brain is full of questions and searching. They’re not really work-related questions, though. Rather questions about life and art (a passion he pursues as much as he can).
For art, even if those questions spark their own kind of discomfort and overwhelm, what a luxury to be able to indulge in your own angst, rather than everyone else’s.
This column will be published very close to Labour Day. Not sure if that’s ironic or just coincidence. I also have some more vacation coming up. I find fall a very reflective time, though I don’t think I have as much to process this time around. We’ll see what comes to mind.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org