The Art Of Taking Leave – A Trip To A Balanced And Productive 2023

Let me start by asking: – ever reached the point where your will says ‘yes’ but your body and mind say ‘No’? I did – in October last year. Each time I sat down at my computer to work, my mind went blank. My hands lay limp on the desk. Nothing happened. 

Finally, I spoke to a friend. ‘Something’s wrong with me,’ I said, and explained what was happening. ‘What you’re experiencing is burn-out,’ he said. ‘You need a rest.’ At these words, a weight lifted from me, as I reflected that I had not taken a single day off since January 2019.  Four years! My body and mind were desperate for rest.    

And then the Living God (or the Universe – whichever you prefer) brought the message home to me in that subtle way he has. Two other people spoke about their need for rest within the space of a week.  I had a meeting with a leading figure from Standard Bank who was on holiday and had taken two months off. My German CEO friend called, saying he was frustrated at work and suffering shortness of breath. ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘You need a break!’

I was getting the message loud and clear, and from early December, I heeded my own advice.  Two weeks into my self-imposed ‘leave’, however, nothing had changed.  I felt as flat and uncreative as ever, and still drew a blank when I sat down at my screen.  This was getting me nowhere!

The meaning of ‘leave’

It was not until I spoke to my mentor that the meaning of leave dawned on me. Our conversation sparked a deep pondering on rest, refreshment and that universal term, ‘leave’. What does it mean to go on ‘leave’? Do we know how to rest? Do the things we do while on leave refresh us or exhaust us?  I realised that there is an art to taking leave. 

The key is to maximise the opportunities that leave presents.  Get the best out of the situation.  Don’t fritter it away and at the end of the period, wonder what happened, and why you still feel exhausted. Leave should be like when you buy a tub of Bar One ice-cream at Woolies and get one free – that feeling of having received a real bargain for the effort expended.  

There’s an art to taking leave – a science, even.  We need to understand the ‘methodology’ for taking leave to really get the most out of it. 

In my case, I was exhausted and did not know it’. And I really mean exhausted! I slept day and night; if I woke up at midday, I carried right on sleeping, finally rising at about 4 pm. Then a few hours of pottering about – no reading, as that would stimulate my mind too much –  then back to bed at 9.

It worked fantastically. I called my CEO friend to ask how he was doing. When he said that although he was on holiday with his wife and child, he still felt tired, I advised him to sleep far more than he thought he needed to. Two weeks later he called to say thank you for that advice, it really helped!  

I felt I had cracked the code of taking leave. Sleep is what we all need more than anything else for real refreshment. It is Nature’s way of healing, repairing, replenishing and restoring. No number of exotic holidays will ever replace simple sleep.  When we buy a car – each year we are told that when the car has reached 15000 kilometers it needs to come in for a service.  We need to look at our holidays in the same way – as servicing the body.

Five kinds of leave

All of this brings me to my point I have worked out in my head – the five kinds of leave. If taking leave is an art, or a science, this is Leave 101 – your first look at the underlying structures of leave.

Consider the five kinds of leave below. Which one is most suited to your needs right now, or will be, later this year?  Plan you leave accordingly and achieve the Bar One Tub reward.

  1. Burn-out leave (60 days)
    This is desperately needed leave, as in my case, that can prevent complete collapse and mental breakdown. If you sense you need it, take it! Burn-out usually requires sleep. You need to retreat to a place where you can have silence and alone time, disconnect, and sleep. If you’re married, let your partner know you need reduced expectations at home for a period to zone out. If you can, get away—to your parents’ house or any place where there will be no pressure, no expectations. Rest and sleep.
  2. Emergency leave (7 days)
    Things happen, upturning all our plans. It might be family matter – an accident in the home, an incident at your child’s school, an illness … or a car accident. All of these demand our full attention. The key is to recognise the situation as an emergency, give it our attention, and not try work during this time.

    It is quite clear that many people resign from work because of stress. Mindful of this, when an emergency occurs, keep stress to a minimum by being clear with your bosses. Carve out the time you need to deal with the situation at hand.
  3. Family leave (14 days)
    Focused time to reconnect with one’s partner, children and friends. We all have a huge need for connection with others; without it we cannot function. This leave need not be long – a few days, perhaps, preferably twice a year. During this time, take care of things at home, switch off completely from work, and truly spend time with your family. Be attentive to their needs, meet with your children’s teachers if you can, invite the in-laws over, take an interest in the things you may have been neglecting.  This is leave dedicated to keeping relationships healthy.
  4. Study leave (21 days)
    This is the leave that helps us realise our dreams – the leave that elevates our status and our prospects in the future.  It is short, focused, and requires hard work. Not to be confused with rest at all! As with other forms of leave, switch off from all distractions and focus on the task at hand.   
  5. Rest Leave (Two weeks)
    I consider this the most important leave of all. Can be combined with family leave, as long as you’re actually doing restful things. Get away somewhere. A change of scenery does your mental health and family good. However, the key is to be refreshed and regenerated, not stressed out!

Most people take this form of leave, but if you look closely, you’ll find there’s nothing restful about it – they’re still fetching and carrying kids, buying groceries, getting stuck in traffic, none of these refreshing at all.  Leave is supposed to be good for our mental and physical health.  I always tell my team, ‘Invest in your tools.’  You are the most important tool, so invest in yourself and invest in harmony with your family.  Take your children out of school and travel somewhere for those two weeks.  Avoid distractions – change scenery.

Plan to rest!
As you look out over 2023, why not schedule two dedicated bouts of leave – not counting public holidays and weekends?  They can be short but effective, if they’re planned. What kind of leave will you take?

As I near the end of my overdue sleep leave, I leave you with one final thought. Invest in your home. It’s not much fun going on an expensive holiday only to return to an environment that depresses you. I nearly took a trip around the country in the last few weeks – until I decided I’d rather spend the money on making my home more aesthetically pleasing. I want to be uplifted when I come home at the end of the day.  Colour, light, beauty – these things are good for the soul, too.

It may seem odd to start the year with an essay on sleep and rest, but there it is! My advice: plan your leave and get the most out of your time away from the office.

Here’s to a great, productive and balanced 2023.

Simphiwe Mtetwa
Simphiwe Mtetwa is South Africa’s leading Corporate Social Responsibility news, media and publishing firm. We create content on social responsibility, helping government, corporates, consultants, NPOs and NGOs to reach their target markets through appropriate, targeted development news.

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