Jonathan Marques’ Instagram page is filled with photographs of his recent holiday to South Africa, an annual break, which he plans along with a few shorter getaways through the year. Marques, 32, is a business and research analyst with a global accounting firm, and like many in corporate India, has a demanding work schedule. He ensures taking time off periodically to recharge, a resolve that does not always resonate with other working professionals. “A few years ago, one of my seniors mentioned that no one in a team should take more than a week’s leave since ‘It looks bad,’" says Marques.

Perhaps this is the reason why 75% Indians feel vacation deprived, according to the Expedia Vacation Deprivation Survey 2018, an annual report of global vacation habits . The online survey was carried out across 19 countries in September 2018 among 11,144 employed adults aged 18 and above, with Indians topping the list as the most vacation deprived. The report found a variety of reasons why Indians do not take vacations. These include the fear of missing out on important decisions; appearing less committed about their careers; heavy workload; and the quality of holidays being compromised by colleagues, who expected them to be available even while away. The results, more importantly, suggest that personal time is still undervalued here.

Personal time vs vacation

“I do feel vacation deprived, even though I have a supportive supervisor," says Deborah Paul, 45, a communications consultant with an international development agency. “However, with my work load, it gets challenging to take more than one long break in a year. Now, I have started taking mini-breaks. I use long weekends combined with a day or two of leave for some ‘me’ time."

While Neha (who uses only her first name), 37, category marketing head at an FMCG company, doesn’t necessarily feel vacation deprived, she is not surprised with the survey results as her emphasis on personal time is not always echoed by co-workers. “Vacation is not a priority with most people I have interacted with professionally or personally. I am not sure why this happens though."

Even though there is more awareness on stress management, work-life balance and taking breaks, people are unable to switch off. Sanjay Gopinath, chief human resource officer, FMC Corporation, a global company in the crop protection segment, feels that many professionals continue to equate long hours with productivity. “People are not necessarily working smart, though they may be putting in long hours," he says, adding that this may be the reason they hesitate to ask for leave.

Deborah Paul prefers taking mini-breaks. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Deborah Paul prefers taking mini-breaks. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Lip service

Interestingly, the report finds more companies encouraging employees to take time off, but employees still seem unconvinced about this. Swati Nagpaul, senior HR consultant at a French multinational company, finds many organizations merely paying lip service to the concept of advocating work-life balance. They may be allowing employees to take leave, but do not have policies that support them while they are away. “I work with a French company and work-life balance is extremely important in their culture. An official backup is always assigned, regardless of your position or duration of your leave, to deal with any work while you are away. I am not sure how many companies in India have these kinds of policies," she asks.

Though companies have their role to play in making leave-taking easier, individuals should set boundaries and find their own balance too. “I differed with my boss and remember telling him how higher-ups at the overseas branches take two week vacations," says Marques.

Working smart

Sameer Guha, 37, general counsel for India and South Asia, Mars International, a global FMCG company, prefers putting in some work when on holiday in order to avoid an avalanche on his return. But he calls this working smart, and not in any way taking away from his personal time. “Vacations are about moments and experiences. If work is distracting us from these moments, then we’re doing something wrong. If you have to, put in time early in the mornings or late at night, or on a flight," he says. However, to avoid this being interpreted by colleagues as an invitation to disturb you, it is important to clearly communicate boundaries. “As I grow in my career, it is becoming harder to switch off completely," says Neha. “I don’t mind the compromise of having to keep some time for work when I’m on a long leave but I do make it clear to colleagues that I will be available only for two specific hours. Otherwise, I should be called only if something unexpected needs urgent attention."

Gopinath feels that the pressure will not abate until top management personally demonstrates this balance. “If the leaders set an example, then the others will follow the pattern," he says.

Along with continuous education for all employees on the importance of personal time and its impact on productivity and well-being, Nagpaul feels organizations need to develop policies that genuinely support an employee’s time away. “Introducing different kinds of leave like paternal and bereavement leave is helpful," she says, “Many employees take annual leave for this and are back in two-three days after a death in the family. People need to be able to grieve," she adds.

With exposure to varied international work cultures; organizational policies that genuinely support work-life balance; and individual self-discipline, a gradual cultural shift is possible. Companies will play a part, but individuals need to find their own equilibrium.

Work-life balance: A global view

■ France’s “right to disconnect" law grants employees the legal right to ignore work emails outside of typical working hours.

■ The Netherlands has one of the shortest work weeks globally—30 hours per week.

■ Many Japanese companies encourage employees to exercise together, collectively doing Radio Taiso, a 15-minute exercise regimen, in the morning to reduce stress and boost morale.

■ Taiwanese professionals have historically prioritized their employers, viewing requests for time off as rude. To emphasize the importance of family time, a law was put in place in January 2017 that gives employees two days off per week.

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