Time to flee the grind?

February 20, 2010

For many workers the start of September comes with a “back to school” dread. Managers returning from holiday feel low and dissatisfied with their lot, which often tempts them to look for a better job.

“We all come back and wish we were still on holiday,” said Stefan Lucks, a management psychologist at Pearn Kandola. “It’s an extreme version of Monday mornings.”

Everyone can be affected, but Ian Florance, who has written about postholiday blues, explains that middle managers are the worst hit. “Research shows that people are not stressed by the sheer amount of work, but more by their place in the pecking order.” Having time-out often wreaks havoc with the office hierarchy – something that matters to middle managers the most. “People come back and feel out of the loop. Then there are two choices – do you try to get back in, or do you simply stay out and leave?”

Work has its own rules and pace and operates a bit like a cult, according to Florance. Two weeks on a beach can leave normally self-confi-dent managers missing a whole set of rules that dictate how to cope with daily life. In short, Florance said: “The spell wears off. You have lost the rules and they grate on you when you come back.”

Some abandon those rules and never look back. One senior employee at an oil company went to a recruitment consultant for advice after working for more than 20 years in the same job. His summer holiday provided more than the usual cata-lyst for change. “It was the only thing I looked forward to,” he reported, adding that he liked going to wild, remote places. He now runs an adventure travel business.

Stuart Lindenfield of Reed Consulting recalls a woman client who was a managing director of a bank: “She needed my ‘permission’ to have a year off to write a book – which proved to be so successful she got a contract for a second book and is now a full-time author.”

Not everyone has the resources, or freedom, to make such dramatic changes – and consultants warn that getting a new job is not like buying a holiday home. “It’s not an impulse buy,” said Lindenfield. He encourages his clients to get to know themselves and be realistic about their strengths.

Holidays provide a rare opportunity for reflection, but the result can be unsettling, with a general disenchantment that sometimes turns into career anxiety. “You might be better off getting a divorce,” said Ian Florance. “Sometimes it’s easier to attach unhappy feelings to work, when in fact it is a personal problem brought about by spending too much time with your partner.”

Nevertheless, with the employer-employee bond looser than ever, unhappiness is something no company can afford to ignore. A survey by Accenture showed that workers in Britain are less engaged with work than anywhere else in Europe. Florance claims this is attributable to the boom-and-bust cycle of the 1980s and redundancies. “There has been a breakdown in the psychological contract between employer and employee.,” he said. “If a few years ago a company allocated a few months to bed down a new recruit, that period has now shortened to a month. If a company can’t win someone over in 30 days, the likelihood is they will be pushed out.”

But employers can take action to hold on to their talent. The disruption of a holiday can be managed by better communication. Talking to someone before they leave, then taking a few minutes when they come back to fill them in on what has been happening – including the office gossip – can go far to alleviate the sense of feeling left out and alienated. “Companies are social events,” said Florance. “People need to feel welcomed back to the fold.”

In general, the advice to unhappy employees is: if you feel you must leave your job after a holiday, think carefully about the options. In the past few years Britain has seen a huge growth in self-employment, but the reality can be harder than is often imagined. The pleasure of choosing when and how to work can be overshadowed by money worries and “losing the full richness of office life”, as one consultant described it. Simply swapping one company for another can be equally fraught if the source of unhappiness is your role rather than office culture.

Gael Lindenfield runs courses that encourage fed-up managers to take a holiday and change their lives. “We take people to a small town on the coast of Spain and get them to challenge perceptions of themselves,” she said.

She reports that the results can be surprising. Some people who thought of throwing in their old lives change their minds. “One woman was a successful executive with an American firm. She came on our course and gave up her job to learn Italian and Spanish for a year. Like a lot of people, she fantasised about going to work for a charity. But then after a year she decided that she really liked her old role. She found a similar job, but for a smaller company and less money.

“Taking that break did set her off on a journey of career change, but don’t suppose you can predict the conclusion,” said Lindenfield.

ARE YOU REALLY READY FOR A CHANGE?

- Take at least a month to think clearly, and make sure you are not acting under the influence of too much holiday sun.

- Write down the things you would like to change in your life, and ask whether changing your job would address those. List your long-term career goals.

- Can you achieve them at your current company?

- How many times have you changed jobs in the past 10 years?

- More than three and employers may start to query your commitment.

- Talk to a recruitment consultant to get some objectivity.

- If you decide to stay in your present job, make a list of the top issues you need to address.

- Remember the economic downturn. In uncertain times, moving is a risk.

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