Holiday hell for part-timers, contractors

How long can you go without a holiday? Six months, a year or several years before your productivity is sapped and work quality tanks?

A colleague told me it has been three years since his last proper break. That was neither a boast nor a complaint. Simply the reality of trying to keep a cashed-strapped venture alive.

His comments were timely as we approach winter’s end, the benefits of earlier breaks in the year have long passed, and many are holding on grimly until their summer holiday.

The challenge of regular annual leave will intensify in the coming decade as more people are self-employed and have a portfolio of micro-jobs. Many will learn a hard lesson: no work means no pay. And that a holiday, for them, is a luxury, not a right.

Those with secure full-time employment and the ability to take annual leave, at short notice and free of workplace distraction or stress while on holiday, will feel blessed.

For all the talk about workplace flexibility, I suspect more people are struggling to have a “real” holiday each year. That is, at least two or three weeks in succession to unwind, without occasional work interruptions or having to do extra work before and after the break.

Workforce casualisation is not helping. An estimated 763,000 Australians now hold a second job – a 9 per cent jump in six years to June 2016 – Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows. A inevitable trend is more people holding two or three jobs to pay the bills.

Try taking a decent holiday when you juggle a few employers and must fight to keep your hours. Or when you don’t get paid for holidays and are quickly forgotten by employers who favour staff who are more available. In that scenario, holidays can feel like a guilty treat.

The move to the so-called Gig Economy, where self-employed people work on a project basis for multiple employers, further complicates annual leave.

The Gig Economy and all its supposed flexibility sounds great in theory, until one realises the challenges of taking a long stretch of leave when juggling a portfolio of micro-jobs and/or micro-ventures – and being paid only for work outputs.

The United States Freelancers Union estimates that just over one in three workers in that country is an independent worker. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that up to 162 million people, or 20 to 30 per cent of the labour force in the US and Europe, comprises self-employed workers or those doing temporary work.

That’s a lot of people who must go without income when they take a holiday. Or risk losing clients to competitors when they are unavailable during holidays.

Mid-year holidays can create more stress than they relieve.

I know this problem well. Like many small business owners, the only time for a real holiday is those precious few weeks over Christmas when clients shut down. You go from one Christmas holiday to the next with occasional short breaks in between.

Mid-year holidays can create more stress than they relieve. One or two weeks off over winter means working at night or madly scrambling before or after the holiday to keep up. Clients disturb service providers as needed during holidays because they are contactable online.

Even some in corporate land struggle with annual leave. Their employer insists that staff take more of their previous four weeks leave over January when work is quiet. That means fewer holidays at other times and longer gaps between leave.

Some corporate workers I know are expected to complete work that would have been done on their holiday, before they leave. Their employer is so short-staffed that they cannot cope when employees take long stretches of holidays.

Yes, many firms allow staff to buy extra annual leave and they have a more enlightened approach to workplace flexibility. But that usually involves making financial sacrifices to have greater leave availability – something many cannot afford in this sluggish economy.

Rather than complain about this holiday trend, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and Gig Economy and casual workers need to prepare for it.

I shudder when young entrepeneurs who have spent the past year backpacking or go to Europe every (Australian) winter for a holiday, start a venture. Most do not have the stamina for start-up entrepreneurship or the ability to work for long periods without a holiday.

Start-up entrepreneurs must be prepared to forgo holidays as venture circumstances dictate. That’s not to downplay the immense benefits of holidays or ignore that some clever entrepreneurs find ways to build great ventures and have regular holidays.

However, the reality for most start-up entrepreneurs is years of hard slog and few holidays, at least in the early phase of a venture’s life or as it takes off. The pay-off is usually a more flexible, rewarding lifestyle and extra holidays to compensate for the sacrifices.

Gig Economy workers, too, can adjust. Perhaps their holidays will be between projects rather than during them. That still means long periods without leave and is a different pattern of holidays. Downtime between projects is, at least, a chance for a break. But like more “leave” these days, it comes without pay and is not always relaxing.

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