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Holidays are for wimps

“I’ll keep it short and sweet – family, religion, friendship. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.” Mr Burns

In the demanding and aggressive world of business, the finer things in life are frequently frowned upon; after all, if ‘lunch is for wimps’ what kind of under-performing slacker wastes their time with family and friends, when they could be grinding away for the corporate good?

This is a short-sighted and surely outdated view of what precludes success in business.

It is estimated that work-induced depression and anxiety cost UK companies €16 billion per year in lost productivity. It is the highest in Europe and it is surely no coincidence that UK workers work the most hours and have the smallest amount of annual leave.

A recent study, to be published later this month in the journal Psychological Medicine, says one in 20 workers every year can expect to experience serious depression or anxiety as a direct result of work.

Maria Melchior, the study’s author, said: “Work stress appears to bring on diagnosable forms of depression and anxiety in previously healthy workers; in fact the occurrence is two times higher than among workers whose jobs are less demanding.”

Holidays are the antidote. They are good for your health. If you must work, avoid high-pressured jobs (become a postman rather than a head-chef says the survey), and find one where you can take off as much time as possible to alleviate the accumulated stress.

The UK has eight public holidays per year, two less than the US. France weighs in with 13, closely followed by Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic, who all have 12.

It is a similar picture with annual leave. EU directives demand employees receive at least four weeks’ paid holiday. UK employers can get away with offering the paltry statutory minimum of 12 days, by including public holidays. Some Americans get only ten. Italian, Czech, Polish, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese employees are all guaranteed a minimum of 20 days.

This means that while their US or UK counterparts are busy building up life-threatening levels of stress, many European workers have more than six weeks to lounge around feeling smug.

On a national level, this has always been pretty much accepted, despite occasional moans. But as companies expand and operate in multiple markets, it is something they will have to deal with. Colleagues and counterparts in multinationals will not put up with holiday-level discrepancies for ever. Companies are gradually being forced to ensure parity across their workforces.

August is the month when Europe’s leathery middle-classes migrate to southern shores and the mountains. Cities in Italy, France and Spain are left deserted, with only a handful of hotels and retail outlets open and ready to fleece tourists. The biggest news stories are about bank holiday road misery, sightings of unlikely animals and endless surveys.

A recent Ipsos survey revealed that, despite the paucity of their annual leave, the Brits go on holiday more often than other Europeans and also spend more money. 74% propose to take a summer holiday this year, while the European average is 66%.

One third of Brits plan two or more holidays over the summer period, spending an average of €2579 per household, compared to the European average of €2145.

The Spanish and the French (€2000) spend the least, but this is because they, like the Italians, have traditionally always holidayed on home turf, feeling no particular need to leave their bountiful, warm countries, which offer all the amenities they might need from a holiday.

Traditionally, southern European businesses closed for the month, something the rest of the corporate world found amazing. Lip service is now paid to a competitive global economy and some businesses retain a skeleton staff, who complain that they cannot find a decent restaurant that is open for lunch.

The Brits’ favourite destination is still Spain, and the seaside their favourite holiday. But 33%, of them intend to stay at home in 2007, a figure that has increased from last year, and they are not alone.

The latest edition of Monocle, the magazine for snobs, had an editorial denouncing Russian tourists and calling them the ‘new Germans’. This should not be taken as a compliment by anyone.

They were distressed to find former communists holidaying everywhere, and considered them vulgar, loud and in the habit of monopolising sun-loungers (which, rather charmingly, they reserve with apples rather than towels).

The Turks love them though. Last year 1.5 million Russians visited Turkey, more than any other nation. Turkish hoteliers have made a concerted effort to attract the Russians instead of the Germans, offering menus in Cyrillic along with unlimited vodka.

This is tough on the Germans, who are retreating and holidaying increasingly at home. They now take more holidays in Germany than in any other single destination and the number of vacations at home has now risen to 32%, from 29% in 1999.

DZT, Germany’s tourism marketing agency, says Germans choose to holiday more at home because they are attracted by new offers like city breaks, ‘wellness breaks’, better service and concern for the environment.

They have always been environmentally aware and now increasingly eschew flights to destinations like Italy or Spain for an annual holiday, instead taking several trips within Germany each year. Unification has opened up their country, and coastal resorts in the former east are proving popular with clean, sandy beaches.

The way we holiday has undergone huge shifts in the last few decades. Flight opened up the world for the rich and then cheaper aviation did the same for most of the rest. The fall of communism and increased prosperity liberated whole populations, but the spectre of environmental damage may yet curtail our freedoms.

Flying is becoming an increasingly miserable experience, with restrictions on hand luggage and security delays causing many to rethink their plans. The ‘green brigade’ is determined that guilt over environmental damage will stop people from travelling abroad on their holidays. The idea of a holiday is to reduce stress, but it is now also necessary to find a morally blameless form of vacation.

As some countries experience freedom to travel for the first time, others prefer to enjoy the pleasures of their own land. It is a shame we can’t all live stress-free lives in a Mediterranean climate, with all our holiday requirements on our doorstep. Perhaps global warming will give us these opportunities.

“The alternative to a vacation is to stay at home and tip every third person you see.”

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