Annual leave is no longer fit for purpose, but travellers dreaming of a gap year don’t have to quit their jobs to travel the world, they just need a paradigm change, and more importantly, their employers do too.
For those who have dreams of travelling the world the current system of annual leave in many jobs and careers just doesn’t work. The current paradigm of having to beg for time off or have a limited amount of days begrudgingly doled out to them piecemeal is wrong and belongs in a time where workhouses and sweatshops were the norm, which is why the mantra of ‘quit your job and travel the world’ is so popular.
Achieving a work life balance.
But why is a real work life balance so hard to get? Why do people have to choose between a career or travel? Why can’t they have both? Why can’t travel – or a simple work/life balance for that matter – be much more integrated into the work paradigm?
Well I think it can be, and employers would be wise to listen.
“I need six months off.” I said, realising as I said it I probably should have waited until my boss had finished her mouthful of tea.
“What?” She almost choked on her pretentious earl grey. “Not a chance!”
“Let me rephrase it, I’m taking six months off, I’m just giving you the opportunity to have fair notice and get cover before I go.”
“You can’t have six months off, you don’t even have any annual leave left, you’ve used it all and it’s only May!”
“Erm, I can, I am in fact, and it will be unpaid so it doesn’t fall under annual leave. Consider it a sabbatical if you like. I’ll be back after my trip refreshed and ready to jump back in.”
“But you can’t just leave for six months. It’s not happening!” She was adamant. I could almost see her management trained, closed off mind desperately thinking how she could cover the rota in an already heavily understaffed department.
“Fair enough, here’s my notice letter. Effective immediately.” I shrugged and handed her the envelope I had already prepared just in case.
Okay, the specific conversation isn’t real, but it is fairly representative of many conversations I have had over the years with various managers. You see, I am a nurse – a charge nurse to be more specific – and whilst I work hard in my career I also spend roughly half of the year travelling around the world.
I need to. I don’t have a choice.
The benefits of a work life balance.
I need to take so much time off to travel to quench the undeniable wanderlust that courses through my veins or carry on with the ‘never stop travelling’ mantra I imposed upon myself during my very first backpacking trip.
Don’t get me wrong, my career is important to me, but it will never be as important as travel. Travelling the world for the better part of my adult life has affected me too deeply, travel has taken root far too deep into my soul.
But apart from that, I need to take so much time off to keep myself sane. Literally. I am a charge nurse with specialisms in both emergency nursing and travel medicine. I work in one of the single most stressful professions there is, am pretty senior in that role, and during the periods I do work I work long, tiring hours in a toxic environment which put a strain on me emotionally, physically and mentally.
My career in nursing has been rewarding, but it has also taken its toll. I need regular breaks. I need time away. Put quite simply, if it weren’t for travelling the world, I wouldn’t be physically or mentally able to do my job, and my job would certainly have even more of a detrimental effect on my health and wellbeing as it does now.
Luckily I get this salve on my soul by travelling for at least half of the year, sometimes in one big chunk, other times broken up into smaller pieces. And I do this whether my managers like it or not.
“As important as my career is to me, I make it work around the life I want to live, not the other way around.”
Working outside the system and realising you are in charge of your life.
The big problem is, I have to work outside the system and force my paradigm on my career, because it doesn’t gel with the current system of annual leave.
The current system of annual leave in the UK just isn’t enough, even though it is a damn site more than the American system which really screws workers over. But it isn’t just the amount of allocated hours we are allowed, it is the fact that time off is seen as unimportant or even wrong, as if we are the bad guys for thinking working 24/7, 365 days a year is beyond mental.
This is especially true in careers such as nursing. Considering we give up our weekends, bank holidays, Christmas’ and other major holidays and we sacrifice much of our free time, family and personal time, we still have to put up with the same stale system of limited weeks off every year.Not only that we have to fight with our colleagues who all want time off at the same time, put up with tyrannical tin pot Hitler managers who feel it is their right to split our annual leave up, give us times when it isn’t convenient for us or deny us the time off when we want or need it.
Seriously, why do people put up with this?
So I take my annual leave, then I take unpaid leave or extended sabbaticals on top of that. Most of the time I have asked and gotten it, with the occasional horse trading. If on the rare occasion I feel the need to travel and my employer won’t ‘let me’ (said as if they have any real choice), I quit, and I do so safe in the knowledge that I have an in demand skill in a profession with a shortage of labour and I can get a job the minute I get back if I choose to.
That’s what happens when people’s need for rest, health and well being, work life balance and a passion for travel butt heads with traditional work place paradigms and ridiculous annual leave entitlements. The employer loses a good employee they have invested time and money in, and the employee? Well, the employee doesn’t care because they are off on a jolly around the world and can easily find another job when they get back! It’s a win lose situation in the employees favour, at least those employees brave enough to take that step.
You see, nursing isn’t my first career, it isn’t even my first degree, and long before I was a nurse – or anything else for that matter – I was a traveller. A backpacker. I have taken numerous full gap years, snap years, travelled for extended periods with no time limit in mind and even had simple short week long breaks as and when the need took me.
And I have done all of that in between gaining two separate degrees and two separate careers.
I have travelled extensively throughout almost every single thing I have done. And I came to the realisation very early on that I am not a slave chained to a desk, a cubicle or a nurses station. I am the only one who is in charge of my life, not some manager or HR maniac, and certainly not some archaic societal expectation that we have to work hard and play by the rules imposed on us. As important as my career is to me, I make it work around the life I want to live, not the other way around.
But I have had to fight against the grain for that.
There hasn’t been any real change in the annual leave policies – or indeed way of thinking – in the world of employment for decades. Employers still begrudgingly dole out a set number of days off – at their discretion of course – to each employee every year, the same as they have done for decades. Back when those archaic annual leave norms were invented people still pretty much worked 9 to 5 Monday to Friday. They had evenings off, weekends off and guaranteed time with their loved ones at Christmas and public holidays.
All of that is gone now.
A 24 hour society.
The world of work has changed. Now people work flexi time, they work all the time. We live in a 24/7 society and our work lives reflect that. During my work periods I can do long days, early shifts, late shifts, night shifts and weekends, and Christmas and public holidays don’t exist for me. And I am far from alone in this. Many professions and careers have the same problems. On the other hand of course, some people, some careers – like bank workers – are still lucky enough to have the 9 to 5 arrangement.
Careers now aren’t standardised. Work lives are not standardised. This is what makes a standardised application of annual leave unfair.
The current annual leave system as it is just doesn’t reflect the way society works now. It doesn’t reflect how many people view themselves or the world around them. People don’t want to spend their whole lives dedicated to clocking in and clocking off from work. They want a work life balance. They want a personal life away from work. They want to follow those dreams of travelling the world without having to quit and dismantle the career and the life they have worked for and built up.
It is time for a change.
The good news is there are some employers who are forward thinking enough to embrace this. Richard Branson – ever the paragon of enlightened employment paradigms – is allowing Virgin staff to take off as much time as they want, and Netflix has a similar ‘no policy’ policy for annual leave, where anyone can get their work done when it suits and take time off when it suits! Doesn’t that sound awesome?
Of course this ‘freedom and responsibility’ movement may not apply in the exact same way for every profession. Careers which can be worked – even partially – online or at home, or jobs where spending time in the office is not in any way indicative of how productive you can be are relatively easy to apply a ‘no policy’ policy. As long as the work is done, who cares if you decide to take time off? Other careers aren’t always as simple, you will always need nurses to staff a 24/7 emergency department and teachers to teach during term time for example, but even if the specifics are slightly different the basic paradigm can be the same.
Work to live, not live to work.
All employers need to recognise the fact that their employees have and want lives outside of work. They have to respect the fact that people have dreams and aspirations beyond their desk, and many of those dreams involve travel. People who harbour dreams of travelling the world but feel trapped at their desk have the right to be able to explore other sides to their lives. They have a right to explore their aspirations beyond work and follow their dreams. Work is an important part of life, but life isn’t all about work.
Employees should be able to take time off when and if they choose. They should be able to take career breaks or sabbaticals when and if they choose. Life isn’t one long, straight road where you finish school, get a job and stay there until the day you die anymore, no matter how much certain sections of society may want that.
Life has a habit of throwing things at us that we don’t expect and from time to time people need to take that break in their lives, whether it is to deal with a problem or allow themselves time to rest and rejuvenate, or whether it is to follow a long held dream of travel or explore a different side to themselves as they grow and change. These are just a few of the reasons people take gap years, they are just a few of the reasons people pack up and travel the world.
And travel isn’t something that those of us with a burning sense of fernweh – of being homesick for somewhere new – can easily shake off. It is all encompassing. We want to travel,we need to travel, and little things like jobs or careers aren’t going to stop us. If people want to travel they will find a way.
But those who want to take time away from their lives to travel the world should be able to do that without sacrificing everything, because if they can, it will benefit everyone in the long run.
Finding a middle ground will benefit everyone, employees and employers.
Allowing employees the flexibility to choose when, where and for how long they take their annual leave for, and allowing them the freedom to decide if they want to take a career break or a sabbatical without having to completely quit, has benefits far beyond simple morale building.
Employers such as Virgin and Netflix can see the endless short and long term benefits to having a workforce who is in control of when they work and when they take time off. They can see that by giving their employees the responsibility of freedom, they are also increasing productivity, creativity and even intangible things such as employee loyalty and happiness.
If true flexibility existed in the workplace then the stresses and strains that come with having to squeeze a life into a hectic work schedule will disappear. They won’t be a problem because they won’t exist. Employees will be more happy in their work and more focused on it when they are there.
You see, when employees are happy, when they are well rested and well motivated, they work harder and smarter than ever before. When they are given freedom, they repay that with loyalty and hard work. It isn’t really rocket science is it?
This would be true of any profession, any job, provided that it actually existed, which it doesn’t at the moment of course.
Speaking for my own profession, nursing has one of the highest burn out rates of any career out there. Nurses are tired, stressed, overworked and many often lack the basic motivation to drag themselves to another shift, never mind have the ability to care for and treat patients to the best of their ability. The job kills you, and I am not being dramatic when I say that. Couple that fact with the basic reality of annual leave policies that do not allow many nurses to take enough time off together to rest, never mind travel and enjoy a work life balance, is it any wonder why so many get burned out?
Although nursing is a pointed example, the same is true for any work environment. No matter what the job is, allowing staff the freedom to choose their own annual leave entitlement – when, where and for how long – will allow them to rest. It will allow them to get a work life balance and enjoy their lives away from the stresses and strains of work. Even for those who choose not to travel, surely that can only ever be a positive thing? I know that without my own time off, without fulfilling my need to travel and replenishing myself, I would not be able to function in my job at all, and I do not exaggerate when I say I doubt I would still be able to do the job now if I didn’t.
There have been a variety of studies that show flexible working and increased time off have shown that when employees do go back to work they will be rested, more alert, less exhausted and more able to give the emotional, physical and mental resources that the job demands. That has huge benefits for the employer too, because it means employees will be more focused, more productive, and get more done than they would have if they had less time off. A recent report by World to Work showed quite clearly that employers who had offered more flexibility with annual leave and working hours showed a vast decrease in absenteeism and turnover, and a huge increase in productivity and satisfaction.
Seriously, letting employees have more time off for travel benefits everyone!
By employing well travelled backpackers, workplaces can have the benefits of an experienced, well rounded, highly skilled workforce. Even if the experience is unconventional.
And then for those who want to incorporate travel into their lives without actually quitting everything they have lived and worked for, there are the unquestionable tangible and intangible benefits to travel that would be an absolute asset to any employer.
How a gap year makes you a better employee and boosts your CV.
World travellers have lived, and sometimes worked, for long periods in a variety of countries and cultures. Their world view, their paradigms and their ethical values are profoundly influenced by their experiences. Travellers are used to a variety of cross cultural idiosyncrasies and barriers and are use to overcoming them which is essential in a modern global workplace, they are often creative and dynamic thinkers who are used to dealing with transitions easily.
Backpackers are often innately skilled in project management and logistical problem solving, having had to organise their own travel logistics for up to a year or even more. Travelling independently requires a degree of motivation, independence, confidence and adaptability. All good qualities in any employee.
But far beyond the intangible benefits, backpackers often bring with them a whole range of specific skill sets that could be extremely beneficial in the workplace, not to mention cost employers a lot of money to train their existing staff in. Languages, communication skills, leadership skills, specific skills gained whilst volunteering abroad, all these and many more make a lot of backpackers CV’s very interesting reads – if they spin them right of course – and certainly makes them highly desirable to any employer who is open minded enough to see it.
And this basic truth can be applied to all professions, careers and jobs. So why the hell would any sane employer not want this? Why would any boss not want to have a workforce that is happy, rested, well travelled and multi skilled? Instead of hiring new employees all the time, why not build a strong, committed and loyal workforce with all these traits and more?
By allowing more freedom to travel, more freedom for employees to choose their own leave entitlements and return better, stronger, more skilled and well rounded than ever before, and rested, rejuvenated and loyal to the company that allow such freedoms to boot, the employers of this world can reap dividends in return.
It is long past time the traditional annual leave policies were scrapped. It is time employers had the iron grip they have over employees time off taken away from them. It is time employees were allowed to decide for themselves when and for how long they need to have time off from work, and it is more than time for those who dream of travel to follow those dreams without having to quit their jobs or their lives.
Employers have the chance of getting rid of archaic annual leave policies and developing a system that encourages the benefits of time off and travel. I think it is high time they take it. What about you?
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.