Erica Pinsky



Bottom Line Cost of a Working Holiday

 available as a PODCAST

Last night I had dinner with a friend who had just started a week long summer holiday.  When I asked how she had spent her first vacation day, she told me she had been working.  I, of course, reminded her that a holiday was by definition supposed to be a break from work.


Yes, yes, she assured me.  She was going to take some time off, starting when she left town on Day 3.  When her holiday week started she had 2 days of work to complete and 2 days of holidays in town in which to do it. It was all working out well.


It seems my friend, like so many others these days, is taking a working holiday.


It was not that long ago that a “working holiday” would have been considered a complete oxymoron.  The raison d’etre of a holiday has traditionally been about getting away from work: to take a break, to rest, to rejuvenate, to re-energize.


Now in the olden days, before PDA’s and 24/7 worldwide connectivity became our reality, “getting away from it all”, was pretty easy to do.  These days it can be virtually impossible.


On the surface it appears that this development is great for business.  An employer may still be paying employees for a 40 hour week, however, providing an employee with a Blackberry often alters that aspect of the employment contract.


The technological capability to be available wherever, whenever creates an unspoken assumption, which quickly translates to a cultural norm in most workplaces: whether or not an employee is at work, he/she must be available to deal with work related issues.  If one fails to do so, that could prove to be a “career limiting” move, somehow demonstrating a lack of commitment to one’s job and/or one’s employer.


The critical issue here is the unspoken or implied part of this assumption.  New or changing technology will by definition change how we work.  Unless an employer is strategically and deliberately engaging in communication about those changes, employees will watch, wait and then follow whatever everyone else seems to be doing.  If everyone else is answering emails at 11 pm and when on holiday, if colleagues are working rather than taking holidays, those behaviors will very quickly become cultural norms.


So what’s the problem?  My experience with my clients as well as my research in this area establishes that this new cultural norm is increasingly contributing to employee anger and resentment.  Workplace incivility is on the rise. This unspoken requirement to be available 24/7 too often creates a perception of unfair and disrespectful treatment among many employees, particularly when combined with a lack of recognition, acknowledgment or increased remuneration/rewards. Work life integration, increasingly valued by Gen X and Y employees, seems impossible to attain.


Rather than increasing efficiencies, the inevitable result is decreasing employee engagement, a loss of productivity and creative energy, increased conflict and turnover. Studies show that greater numbers of employees are unhappy at work and wanting to change jobs.


We had a very public example of such an outcome here in BC last week with the resignation of BC Attorney General Barry Penner.  The 15 year veteran of BC politics and self-proclaimed workaholic, resigned his post yesterday, after being unable to take a planned 2 week holiday with his wife and 6 month old daughter.  “There’s been a lot of work and stress that comes with the job and I take that home with me and that’s not something that’s terribly healthy for a young family. To have a father being significantly distracted by not one but two BlackBerries and laptop and phones that never stop ringing through weekends and supposedly holidays…. I was supposed to be on holiday the last two weeks. And I think I got maybe one-and-a-half days ... because of urgent issues in the ministry that had to be attended to. So that just illustrated to me that its very difficult to strike the work-life balance that I would like to have.”²


Given the reality of a recessionary economy, an interest in doing more with less as well as an increase in corporate globalization the fact that employees can now respond to an issue when it happens regardless of where they are can create huge business advantages. Technology offers incredible opportunities for business, but like any other opportunity, the critical factor is in how we manage it.


In the June edition of this e-news I featured Heritage Law, a boutique law firm where  technology offered the solution to a problem, rather than creating one.  The strategy at Heritage Law, consistent with best practices in other top companies, was  to  become familiar with all of the available new technologies and employ them strategically to support  work life integration and organizational success.


There are no unspoken assumptions shaping the organizational culture at Heritage Law. Issues like how, where and when work is to be done, expectations around client service levels are issues that are talked about and managed on an ongoing basis.


As a result, employees there may be willing to respond to emails at midnight, or be prepared to handle emergencies or even work during their scheduled holidays.  They do not feel taken advantage or, undervalued or disrespected.  They value the flexibility they have to manage their working lives, and because they are treated with respect within an empowered adult working relationship they feel both connection and loyalty to their employer.   Respectful workplace relationships produce the increased organizational efficiencies and improved business outcomes required for success in today’s technology driven and diverse workplaces.


Someone I met while on my summer holiday talked to me about his dissatisfaction with his current employer.  More and more work is being assigned to him, he told me.  To accomplish it he is working longer and longer hours, including evenings and weekends.  When they have time for a break, he and his colleagues spend their time griping about both their immediate supervisor and their employer’s policies.  He said he was much happier in his previous job, where his former boss always had time for him.  They had a trusting relationship characterized by ongoing, authentic  dialogue.  “I have been coming here every year for eight years” he said “Much as I love spending my summer holidays here I would have cancelled my holidays for my old boss if had asked me.  No way I would ever do that for my current employer.”


Albert Einstein said “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.”  The “problems” that new technologies have created in our workplaces are only problems because most employers have failed to engage in strategic, collaborative dialogue about how to manage them.


The technologies may be new, but the manner in which they are being applied is unfortunately a continuation of the status quo – a hierarchical power based command and control management style that inevitably creates a stress filled, fear based,  blaming and disconnected workplace.  It is the sluggish economy that is keeping these unhappy employees at their jobs.  Top talent with other options, like former BC. Attorney General Barry Penner, will be the first to go.


There are a whole host of very good reasons why holidays are legislated.  When people work too much, when we don’t take a break from the world of work, both our health and our work, and by extension our workplace, suffers.  Research into the neuroscience of leadership by Dr. David Rock has proven that leaders and those they lead make more effective, creative decisions when they are relaxed, safe and having fun.


It is one thing to allow those that choose to work on a holiday to do so.  It is quite another to require employees to do so, either overtly or through an unspoken assumption and/or ever increasing work loads.


What unspoken assumptions might your employees have about the requirement to be available on an on call basis?  How might those assumptions be affecting their attitude and behaviours at work, and/or their interest in seeking employment elsewhere?  Have you calculated the bottom line cost of employee dissatisfaction and turnover?


The summer holiday season is not quite over.  This is an ideal time to start talking and find out.


Create opportunity for conversations about the new workplace
realities that technology has created with employees and leaders. 

Get everyone’s input on how this has affected them, and
what ideas they have for managing it. 

Clarify expectations with respect to work related outcomes.

Rather than focusing on how much time employees are spending at work,
focus on setting realistic targets for employee output, regardless of where
or when they are doing their work.


Explore the opportunities that technologies can provide to support work life integration, something increasing numbers of employees want.  Use a respectful approach that focuses on individual, personalized solutions as opposed to rigid, organizational rules and policies.  One size fits all never really fits anyone.


Please be sure to let me know how it goes.  I would love to feature your company’s best practices in an upcoming edition of this e-newsletter.


² “B.C. Attorney-General Barry Penner, citing family, resigns"

JUSTINE HUNTER,  VICTORIA— From the Friday August 19, 2001 Globe and Mail



"In her book, Erica provides a wake-up call for employers by detailing why respect, as a core value, is so imperative. She then provides a persuasive argument why organizations should embark on the road map to respect. Particularly compelling are her personal workplace anecdotes as well as the case studies featuring some of the largest companies in Canada, who are getting respect right."

Melanie Sklarz
Diversity and Respect Coordinator
Edge Learning of Ohio RespectfulWorkplace.com