Holiday retreat

Among the many autobiographical details that Prime Minister Narendra Modi vouchsafed to Bear Grylls, the wildlife adventurer and broadcaster, in the hour-long Discovery programme was the fact that he hadn’t taken a holiday in 18 years. The prime minister’s messaging in this instance was consistent with a quip he made some years ago describing his governing credo as “hard work not Harvard”. That was a crack at the criticisms by several foreign-educated economists of some of his economic initiatives. But millions of his fervent followers will instantly spot the virtue in his vacation-poor career, which also involves astoundingly long hours of work. After all, 18 vacation-less years date back to his appointment as Gujarat chief minister, through to his rise to a second-term prime minister with a huge majority. 

It may, however, surprise Mr Modi to know that when it comes to vacation renunciation he is, in fact, not an exception. A 2018 Vacation Deprivation Report, which covered 19 countries, by travel portal Expedia revealed that Indians feel they are the most vacation-deprived people in the world. More than half do not use their annual vacation entitlement fully: India ranked fifth in terms of markets that leave their vacation unused — after Japan, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. 

A granular look at this data underlines that this vacation deprivation is partly self-induced and partly the result of the workplace ambience. The chief reason Indians don’t go on leave are: Fear of missing out on important work decisions, fear of being considered less committed, and difficulties in coordinating time with travel companions. No less significantly, the survey found that Indians also don’t go on leave because they are the least likely to be given a free pass. Over 60 per cent are deterred from taking holidays because of the extra workload when they return and almost all are expected to be available to colleagues and on email while on leave. It is possible, of course, that the work-vacation balance is skewed because Indians get so many national holidays anyway. At 21 days a year, the country is on a par with Kazakhstan and preceded only by Cambodia (28) and Sri Lanka (25). China and Hong Kong have 17 national holidays, followed by Pakistan with 16.

Apart from the US, where the term “workaholism” was established as a personality disorder, striving, rising Asia in general remains a vacation-poor region by inclination too. The Japanese and Chinese consider anyone who works eight hours a day lazy and 12 hours as par for the course. But growing prosperity is changing attitudes too. In Japan, workaholism has come to be acknowledged as a serious social problem that can lead to early death (the term for it is karoshi), and the death of at least one of its prime ministers was ascribed to voluntary overwork. Surprisingly, most middle-class Indians do not revel in their vacation-poor lives. Over half said their productivity was affected because they could not go on vacation as much as they wanted and complained of being pestered by bosses, colleagues, and junior staff when they did. This is a realisation that appears to have occurred to many senior managements as well, so most stipulate a minimum annual vacation for employees.

At any rate, the leader of the world’s most powerful country, the US, always takes an annual vacation, as do European leaders. Among Indian leaders, Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee regularly went on vacation during their prime ministerships. Mr Modi’s chosen path of unrelenting hard work may well add to the formidable aura that surrounds his persona. It is, however, debatable whether that’s the example to follow.