Welcome back to you all. I don’t know about you, but whenever I get back from a holiday I always ask myself two questions –the obvious one is “how did that go so quickly?” And then, a bit more thoughtfully, “did I actually use that break wisely?” I increasingly think it is important to plan breaks as carefully as possible, in order to make the most of them and not to return to work dissatisfied by your time away. This will probably resonate with some of you who were working for exams over Easter. Essentially, nowadays my most satisfying breaks involve doing some work or maybe some other jobs in the morning, so that I feel I have done something productive every day (ironically, I find this important in order to enjoy a holiday), before doing something completely different for either mind or body or both in the afternoon. These completely different activities are diversionary tactics, something to take your mind as far from work as possible. It can involve sleep and reading; more often it involves some sort of sport, or social activity. This time, as so often, I did some things well and some not so well. On the plus side, I indulged in the two best sports for getting your mind off things, with three days skiing and a day or two of sailing – in my experience, it is impossible to do those two sports without being fully in the moment and concentrating on what is immediately addressing you; I played a couple of rounds of golf and a bit of tennis and went on the odd run to get the heart-rate up. I also read one of the best books I have read in a long while, which diverted the mind superbly from Bedford School work to the story of early Christianity in the Middle East. What I did badly was to keep the mobile phone too close to hand (and to pick it up too often); to plan each day poorly; to read only one book; and to eat more than I exercised, which nearly always ends unsatisfactorily.
About 10 years ago, a man called Professor Scott McCabe from Nottingham University Business School did some work on the benefits of holidays, some of which are blatantly obvious, but some less so and indeed some of which are genuinely interesting. According to a 2010 article in Psychology Today, he found that “personal benefits include: rest and recuperation from work (obvious); provision of new experiences leading to a broadening of horizons and the opportunity for learning and intercultural communication (much less obvious); promotion of peace and understanding (genuinely interesting); personal and social development; visiting friends and relatives; religious pilgrimage and health; and, subjective wellbeing”. Professor McCabe feels so strongly about this that he advocates that families be given some form of financial assistance if they are unable to afford vacations on their own. Indeed, further studies led by Purdue University show how important holidays can be to families, promoting what is called the crescive bond – in other words, group growth through shared experiences.
And this shared experience is really what holidays are best for and indeed what they were invented for. The most notable early example of a holiday is the Jewish Sabbath, which goes back to at least the 6th century BC. The book of Exodus tells us to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” This last day of the week, the Sabbath day, therefore, was for worship of God and for rest – most of which would be done communally, providing shared experiences. Somewhere in the 2nd Century AD, early Christians added the Lord’s Day, a Sunday, as a rest day, the first day of the week, in honour of the resurrection of Christ on that day. Then around the 4th Century AD, Christians discarded the Jewish Sabbath altogether in favour of their own. Differing systems have happened in various places over the last 2,000 years – the Romans had a day off, a nundinae, every eight days – all were off work and it was market day so that those working on the land could sell their wares to those who would have been working elsewhere; the French Revolutionary calendar had a 10-day working week before its day off; our own five-day working week, featuring the two-day weekend, was adopted only about 100 years ago; since then, very recently, various places have trialled three-day weekends, most excitingly in 2018 when, in a company trial, a New Zealand firm called Perpetual Guardian saw a 20% increase in productivity by cutting from a five-day week to a four-day week. They have 250 employees and they noticed so many upsides and so few downsides that they have now adopted the four-day week permanently, as indeed have an increasing, though small, number of UK companies.
And then there were Bank Holidays. Until 1834, employees of the Bank of England celebrated 33 Saints Days as holidays, but they were cut to only four that year. In 1871, the Bank Holidays Act enshrined in law the right of bank workers to have a few days off during the week annually. Since then, of course, most work places have adopted the same routines, but even now, they do not have to do so. As you will know from last weekend, and I think sadly, many non-emergency institutions choose to work on Bank Holidays nowadays.
The point I want to make today is that the notion of rest has been enshrined in our collective psyche since Moses was handed the Ten Commandments. Nobody should feel apologetic about taking it, if they have earned it. This is an important condition. Rest is only satisfying if you have achieved something in the first place. Work for six days, we are told in the scriptures, and the seventh day takes preference over all the others in importance. My advice to those doing exams this term is to work hard for that rest. However, when you take it, try to get away from work altogether – don’t do it half-heartedly. Plan a proper period – a few hours, half a day – when you do something which diverts the mind entirely but is also healthy and beneficial in its own right. Whatever your own equivalent of my going for a sail might be. For me it needs to be outdoor, fresh air, and competitive, at least to some degree. Try to find good balance; I hope you find that, like Perpetual Guardian did, some well-planned time off actually improves your productivity rather than the opposite.
I wish you all well for a happy and successful term.