While the cat's away

Going off on holiday is sheer pleasure unless you're worried about what happens when you're away. Maybe you should stay at your desk.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
1You are the chief executive officer of a company and you're about to go on holiday. Do you: a) frantically try to get ahead, working until the last moment to ensure that all possible contingencies are catered for in your absence, then leave fax and phone numbers in case you need to be contacted while you are away;

b) calmly leave the workplace after a final normal day's work, confident that you are leaving the business in safe hands, and not even tell your subordinates where you are going;

c) neatly arrange things so that some of the more uncongenial tasks of the year have to be carried out while you are away, thus ensuring that your staff will appreciate your indispensability and be pleased to see you back.

2. You are the deputy director of a large company and a crisis occurs while the boss is on holiday. Which of the following best describes your likely response:

a) thank goodness he took his mobile phone with him. The poor chap will probably be going out of his mind with boredom on the beach anyway. He'll be glad to be given something to get his teeth into;

b) he leaves all the important decisions to me anyway, so it makes no difference whether he's here or not;

c) now's my chance. By the time he gets back, he won't even recognise the company as his own.

3. You are neither the CEO nor the deputy director of a company, but you're the person who actually runs the place for them. Your family are talking about a summer holiday. Do you:

a) decide where you are going, after ensuring that reception will be adequate 24 hours a day on your satellite phone;

b) ensure that no important meetings are scheduled, and no important decisions have to be taken during the period of your absence;

c) never take holidays.

These questions illustrate different aspects of a malaise that affects millions of working people each year, particularly in the summer months. Known to psychologists as "Ante-Vacation Dysphoria" (AVD), it is characterised by a general feeling of gloom before going on holiday. As numerous case studies testify, however, it leads almost invariably to MVA and PVD - Mid-Vacation Anxiety (symptoms include delayed flights, stomach ailments, mosquito bites, sunburn and constant anxiety about what's going on back home) and Post-Vacation Depression (a mixture of discovering what's happened while you were away and that feeling we all have on coming back from holiday that what we really need now is a holiday).

As we have seen in recent weeks this summer-of-our-discontent group of psychological ailments is growing. Management psychologists recognise three distinct types of senior executive: the Blair, who has absolute authority and total control; the Mandelson, who actually runs the place; and the Prescott, who would like to be running the place and thinks he is when the Blair is on holiday. When John Prescott found it necessary to thump his tub and proclaim for all to hear that it was he, and not Peter Mandelson (who he described as a crab, having such a creature conveniently to hand on Monday's river trip) who was running the show in Tony Blair's absence, we were witnessing the first signs of Passive Holiday Dysphoria - a disturbance caused by inhaling the gloomy air left behind by someone else who is now away. Last week an eminent stress psychologist even predicted the total demise of the relaxing holiday break. Professor Cary Cooper blamed it on mobile phones, which he described as an "umbilical cord" (though he probably meant umbilical cordless) for workaholics who need to fuel their self-image of indispensability. "The whole point of having a holiday is to get away" he said. "Being contacted on a mobile phone is doubly stressful if you are unable to resolve the problem. It's not just a momentary disturbance - you go on worrying about it and the stress builds up."

The only man I ever knew who had mastered the art of taking stress-free holidays was a chap called Snodgrass who worked for the Civil Service. He'd just breeze out of the office promptly at five o'clock one Friday, leaving everything on his desk looking just as though he'd popped out to the washroom for a couple of minutes, then not be seen again for a fortnight. His real expertise, however, showed in his actions when he returned to work. The first thing he'd do was go to his pigeon hole, remove the accumulation of mail that had gathered in his absence and throw the lot away. The first time I saw him do this, he noticed my expression of astonishment and explained his actions by saying: "If it's important, they'll write again". Then he'd go down to stores for a large sheet of brown wrapping paper, which he'd spread over his desk, adding to the existing pile. Finally he wrote the date on the bottom right hand corner. I saw this unique filing system in action once when I chanced to be walking past his desk when he was on the phone: "Nineteen seventy-three, you say? No that's not too long ago at all, I should be able to put my hands on the information in just a moment." His right hand delved underneath the brown sheet labelled "Broadstairs 1973" and a moment later emerged with a dog-eared letter. "Yes, Mr Marsupial, I have your correspondence right here ... No we don't use computers here Mr Marsupial, just an efficient filing system ... Well thank you very much Mr Marsupial

Quite apart from his insouciance, Snodgrass had hit upon the most effective insurance against all forms of the Holiday Blues: he had arranged his desk in a manner that allowed no other person to venture inside his workspace. This was vital. Since the heady downsizing days of the early 90s, no-one had been able to take a holiday with perfect equanimity for fear that his or her desk, along with his or her job, would have disappeared by the time he returned. Now, even for those with a fair measure of job security, there is the constant worry that you will return to find your hard-disk reformatted or at least several files deleted. You cannot devise complex personal security codes without the risk of being considered paranoid, so the only solution is to surround your desk with such an aura of total chaos that nobody would even consider working there in your absence.

Whether you are a Blair, a Mandelson or Prescott, the problem is the same: you need to cultivate a personal form of designer indispensability. On the one hand, you want to know that you will be missed while you are on holiday; on the other hand, you must not be missed so much that they have to ring you on your mobile.

I am reminded of a presentation ceremony I once attended for a gentleman who was retiring after a lifetime's service with a particular organisation. Getting his cliches in a bit of a tangle, the managing director, on presenting him with an engraved paperweight, used in his eulogy the phrase: "He leaves a gap that it will be very difficult to replace". And that is the ideal to which we should all aspire: to fill a much-needed gap in the organisation.

If you can be the only person who knows how to mend the photocopier, or who knows which of the unmarked buttons on the coffee machine gives you hot chocolate with extra cream substitute, or where to get those pretty green paperclips from, then the success of your holiday is assured. Nothing too important though, or you'll never be allowed to leave your mobile behind when you go to the beach.

Don't forget: research does not confirm the popular belief that more suicides occur during the holiday period. What the figures do show is that suicides are most frequent in the week or two after people return to workn