Secretarial: `No, I can't take minutes for you'

You're on holiday. It's time to relax. So why is your boss calling you? And why are you more stressed than ever?

Whether this year's summer holiday will be a week in Blackpool or six weeks in Tahiti, you can be sure of one thing - an escape from work. Or so you would have thought. However, according to new research from recruitment consultants Office Angels, almost three-quarters of today's secretaries are working an additional 40 hours to make up for time they take off. What's more, nearly a third of the survey's respondents have been forced to change their summer vacation dates due to work demands, and a staggering 60 per cent have been contacted by someone at the office while on their break.

"In some European countries today, and in some UK companies in the past, companies would close down for a designated period every year. But now that rarely happens here. As a result, during the summer months, and especially around the school holidays, many organisations are running on a skeleton workforce, which can have serious repercussions on the morale and productivity of their staff," explains Paul Jacobs, Corporate Communications Director of Office Angels.

"Holidays are supposed to be a time when people unwind and recharge their batteries," he continues. "But for many secretarial staff, trying to cram in the work that they would normally be doing, briefing other colleagues, worrying about it while away and then having to cope with mounds of work on their return, can cause enough stress to make them need to take another holiday altogether."

As if that isn't bad enough, research recently carried out by chartered psychologist, Trevor Jellis, reveals that holidays themselves can often cause high levels of stress. "If you're going away with a family, you've got to accommodate everyone else and have probably had to make compromises. One of you might want to go to a hot beach whereas the other wants to go on an activity-based break in the mountains, or visit a city," explains the director of the Stein Clinic, which specialises in stress management.

"In addition, people tend to put 48 weeks' worth of expectations into one relatively short trip with the result that it's rather like Christmas - it can't possibly live up to all the hype. And finally, the chances of feeling recharged upon your return are very unlikely when you've lived a fantasy for two weeks only to return to more work than ever and the reality that it's another year until you do it again. It's for these reasons, in fact, that a rapidly increasing number of people are choosing to spend their time off from work at home."

But Laura Nicols, business psychologist at Nicholson McBride, disagrees. Her advice to this summer's stressed-out secretaries is: "whatever you do, take the holiday and, ideally, more than once a year and for more than one week. Psychologically, full-time workers have been proven to use the first week to wind down, and the second to enjoy themselves.

"Discuss your plans as little as possible in the workplace and use assertive skills to ensure it is understood both that your booking is non-refundable and that you will not be contactable. The latter can be difficult in a working climate in which many secretarial staff have international mobile phones but you must reiterate that this is your time rather than the company's."

The problem, she says, is that employees, particularly those who are feeling the current insecurity of the labour market, conclude that it won't kill them to have the odd phone call. "But, in fact," says Nicols, "this inevitably affects your whole mind-set because you can never entirely relax."

Others, adds Nicols, subconsciously consider themselves as indispensable. "Another huge mistake. If you think the office can't function without you, you probably need a holiday more than anyone."

Nicols points to the value of suggesting to your boss the recruitment of temporary staff to ease the added work pressures on permanent employees. "In fact," Paul Jacobs points out, "September sees the most dramatic demand for temporary staff, up 5.8 per cent from the previous month." But this may be due to the almost desperate situation that some offices reach by the end of the summer. "Staff who take a holiday tend to work the equivalent of an extra week, usually 20 hours before and 20 hours after the break. This can ruin their entire month, including the holiday itself, and yet it can easily be avoided."

For the temps themselves, claims Jacobs, there are also golden rules. "If you're covering for someone who's going away, make sure you contact them before they leave. It sounds obvious but so many temps don't get briefed properly and the effects can be fatal. Sometimes, all it requires is a brief telephone conversation which can be set up through your recruitment agency. Likewise, make sure you have time, where appropriate, to brief the holiday-maker on their return."

For everyone involved, whether it's the employer, permanent employee or temporary employee, the message is clear: be prepared and don't compromise on the overall office morale, let alone your own.

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