leave phobia

One of the biggest differences I see in the work cultures of the east and the west are in taking leave – atleast a few days off from work. I’ve come across people in India who have worked for a decade or two at a stretch – and proudly proclaiming that they have not even taken a single day of leave, and have even received a medal for their service. While their dedication is of course to be appreciated, I doubt whether this is a really good thing.

While their’s may be an extreme case, I myself was a bit like this for the first four years of my employment – in an entire year I would take maybe only one or two days off, inspite of having worked over countless weekends – the comp-offs (compensatory offs) accumulated could then be encashed later. It wasn’t really some kind of lust for money – its more a kind of blind obsession with work due to various factors mainly peer pressure – everyone else is doing it, the bosses expect it, its the normal way of working and anything else is a dangerous deviation. In general people have a lot of hesitation in taking even a day or two off from work. In my case, in the first place I usually enjoyed my work even at times when it got stressful, so never even considered taking time off, without a very strong reason.

Also we have these concepts ingrained in us – the concept of “work is worship” and the Karma yoga – where people need to work without expectations. These are indeed noble ideals but how many people genuinely follow them, and even if the intention is there, how can one give 100% to work when one is unknowingly being worn out.

And even at times when I did feel like taking leave, I’d have some kind hesitation – almost a fear. In fact all kinds of fears – (not all at the same time! but in different situations) which I’m not particularly proud of recalling now – though not all of the following are my own, some include fears of others as well:

What will my manager think – will he not be less impressed with me? What will the clients think? It is sure to spoil the name of the company if I’m not available for them? Who will do all the work I was supposed to do? What about the project deadline? My peers might get a chance to do better than me, what about my promotion then?

In retrospect, I’d say that it seemed to me as if the entire company was resting on my shoulders! If I take time off, the company will sink, my life will end, all kinds of horrible disasters will happen, I simply can’t afford to take the risk!

And even at home, so many obligations, so many entanglements (inspite of being a bachelor!) – how can I possibly get away from all of them!

But luckily I was placed abroad, and when I went abroad and returned – effectively in a way having taken 3 months off from the house, I found – maybe a bit disappointingly 😉 – that life does go on, even without me. Of course, I do make a difference, but how much of difference I make is entirely my choice.

On the other hand, in the West people took upto 2 weeks off every few months. In India if someone did that it would typically be for some really grand reason like marriage or maternity leave or something like that, whereas they took it simply for travelling, and sometimes just sitting at home and reading some books. I used to think they’re some ultra-priviledged people who can afford all this because they’re rich, their life is “made” and so have nothing to worry about. However when I did visit them, I realised one thing – they too in most cases were ordinary middle class people just like us. It hit me that they seem rich and priviledged only in comparison, but as far as they’re concerned, they too have their own problems including financial problems just like us. Our perception about them, probably matches some poor famine struck under-developed country’s perception of us – who would think that we Indians are all rich, well-to-do people who have our lives “made”!

Let us discount all the political arguments like social security and better government policies and so on, these are again things that we feel they are privledged with – without knowing that they too have an endless number of things to crib about just like us.

It comes down to the fact that that they live their lives more completely – more freely – moment to moment. Their tendency to save their time, money and energy until retirement and for their future generations, is relatively much lesser compared to us.

An important point here is that while they really “work while they work” – they are very sincere with a strong sense of integrity.

We want to save everything for maybe a very grand retired life and maybe for atleast 3 decendants down the line. Or… “in case of an emergency” – which is of course a good thing except I think its taken too far. [IMO there is no greater emergency than the current moment]. And I’m no economist, but if we consider the value of the money we are trying so hard to accumulate and save, nobody seriously seems to bother about the rate at which all these elements are depreciating. And especially time [I’ll use all my time to earn tons of money now, so that I’ll have time to enjoy it “later”] – it depreciates instantly, completely. Time – use it or lose it.

After my visit from Germany, I started getting into the habit of taking a week or two off every few months – either to travel around India or to attend a retreat. At first it seemed scary, all my peers were wondering if I were in my senses, but gradually when I came back and found that the world hadn’t actually ended, I didn’t get fired, etc then they got used to it. I have compromised here in terms of rising up the corporate ladder – I’m not doing too bad but I am sure I should’ve probably done better in achieving a better balance. However I have no regrets, I’ve only been experimenting and I should consider correcting this aspect. But it was like jumping into a cold swimming pool, very intimidating at first but lovely later. I feel I have lived a more complete life – I have had the good fortune of many invaluable journeys both around India as well as within, only a small fraction of which I have yet managed to say in this site. But to prove the point of the value of different things, I recall a story of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa that Upendra (a friend, colleague and neighbour) narrated to me yesterday:

A rich businessman comes to visit Ramakrishna to pay respects, and is about to prostrate at his feet. But instead, Ramakrishna prostrates at the businessman’s feet. The businessman is zapped… “what is this, you shouldn’t do this, such a great man having renounced everything, falling at my feet like this!”. Then Ramakrishna replies – “not me, it is you who are doing the greater sacrifice, you have sacrificed the Divine for the sake of your wealth – it is a much greater sacrifice” 🙂

I was discussing about taking time off with a well-wisher (a professor in IISc – but also so down-to-earth as to conduct himself as yet another fellow-student – in fact it was he who had been one of those who had encouraged me to do some service). So here’s a simple approach that we both concurred on:

– plan atleast a month in advance, involving others you work with, and book the dates
– inform everybody involved eg whom you report to/reports to you
– any appointment that comes up during those dates, either prepone it, postpone it or decline/delegate it
– a very useful thing I’ve seen in European/American colleagues is that they include their vacation dates along with their signature which of course reminds everybody in every email they send
– if the project team has some kind of common calendar, mark the dates of availability there as well

So if you ever consider implementing this, the two key aspects to watch out for are planning and communication.

6 Responses to “leave phobia”

  1. Sham Kashyap Says:

    Yes, vacations are necessary. I think vacations have been there from the beginning.. we just don’t take it. Like people of the older generation say, if you don’t need it, don’t take it because it might help during times of crisis.

    Also, I think we Indians do not take our rewards ourselves. Someone has to give it to us because we don’t want to say “I did a lot of work, so I am taking some time off” because that would be being proud and arrogant and we dont want that!

    And as you rightly said in the last, most of us fail in planning and communicatio too..

  2. msanjay Says:

    > it might help during times of crisis

    yeah this one as well – I added your point above as “Or… in case of an emergency”. Thanks!

    > proud and arrogant and we dont want that!

    Hmm… I have been far too much a victim to this false sense of humility 😀 I’ve realised the hard way that considering myself as a “humble” person and trying to speak and act accordingly is itself against the concept of humility! What a paradox! I concluded its better to be more natural and spontaneous – and say or do what I feel like! No point in compromising on assertiveness in the name of trying not to be egoistic 😉

  3. Leonid Mamchenkov Says:

    Well, I used to work without taking vacations too. In fact, most my Russian collegues did so too. But what I’ve noticed is that it was just a stage. I guess it starts with first “serious” employment and goes until one secures his position in the company.

    Regarding diffirent cultures, I was surprised by something too. Coming from Soviet Russia, I (together with millions of other people) was prepareing for the retirement. The idea is to work your butt of while you can, so that the country can get better. Than country (or government) will have enough money to support me when I retire. But retirement also felt like an end of life. No job, no extra money, you are too old and useless. Noone needs you anymore and you are burden to your motherland.

    As Soviet Union fell and declined, I met a lot of people from other countries. And one of the first things that surprised me was that most of the Europeans just starting to live when their retirement starts. To think of it, it’s rather logical – you’re not bound to the office job anymore. You have a steady income from the pension. You kids are adult and busy with their own life. You have lots of time on your hands. It is time to start travelling, trying new things and meeting new people.

    Than I realized that Russian government is so corrupt and ustable that many decades will have to pass before people will feel the retirement security. That was one of the reasons I felt like moving to a different country…

  4. msanjay Says:

    Good point Leonid – the initial stage of securing the position is definitely quite critical. (Btw thanks for sharing your story). Its somewhat similar about retirement though may not always be that bad (hopefully) in India but nowadays there are financial schemes nowadays that advertise (whether they work or not no idea! 😉 ) – “retire from work, not from life”.

  5. msanjay Says:

    Jigar had sent me this link… really rocks! :mrgreen:

    Onion: Plan To Straighten Out Entire Life During Weeklong Vacation Yields Mixed Results

    MANCHESTER, NH—Returning to work after seven days off, Derek Olson, 31, confessed Monday that his plan to use his weeklong vacation to straighten out his life yielded mixed results.

    [Derek Olson stands among some of the boxes he’d hoped to unpack last week.]

    “This was the week all the shit I’d been putting off for years—big and small—was going to get done,” said Olson, a data-entry operator at A.G. Edwards & Sons. “From getting Steve and Kim a gift for their wedding two months ago to going through all those boxes I’d left unpacked since moving here in 2004 to finally deciding what my future is with [girlfriend] Melanie [Stirre], it was all going to get taken care of.”

  6. msanjay Says:

    Another thing to add is that this time I took a lot more care to make sure that none of my colleagues get adversely affected by my absence.

    Starting from a few weeks earlier, I worked overtime and covered as much as possible whatever was to be done.

    I also appointed another substitute for myself (though one was hard to find, I took a junior guy and briefed him on the job providing support and encouragement. Also though they were quite reluctant initially, after a while my senior team members finally agreed to support me by backing him up as well.

    I discussed it with my client and he had enough trust in me (as a result of a lot of hard work) to assure me that he had the confidence that I’d make up for my absence without adversely affecting the project.

Leave a Reply