The headline made my ears prick up, I had to listen to the bulletin to make sure I heard it right. apparently I did. The newsreader told the listening masses that Bank Holidays cost the nation £2.3bn each. Credit where credit is due, the Centre for Economics and Business Research timed the release of their report perfectly to hit the news desks on a slow news Easter Monday Bank Holiday. But that is where the praise ends. If the report is to be believed, scraping our bank holidays would boost annual output by £19bn. Sounds nice, if you are an economist, a government minister or the ghost of Christmas past. The headline actually hides a multitude of sins and misdemeanours.
The idea that Bank Holidays cost the economy assumes that somehow money is removed from the country’s balance sheets. That is a fallacy. The self proclaimed “rough and ready calculations” made by the think tank are based on the assumption that bank holidays are normal working days. That by the nation not being at work it has been robbed of this productivity. This is simply not the case. It is a paper exercise where figures are imputed for the work which would be done in a normal working day and the value it creates. The value was never created in the first place and so is not lost merely forgone for a better cause.
If bank holidays are so costly, then why have them? For one very simple reason: we all need a break. If the report’s figures are to be believed, Sundays cost the country on average £119.6bn every year. Saturdays a similar figure. That’s almost £240bn the country could be better off by scrapping weekends. And then there are all of the holidays we are “generously” provided with by our employers each year. But have you tried working everyday without a break.
Let’s look at it this way, whenever you drive along the motorway you are reminded that tiredness can kill, to take a break before doing any serious harm. The same is true of working life. Carrying on, and on, and on only does serious damage. I speak from experience that being a workaholic is not a healthy state of mind. Having spent the last 25 years of my life devoting time to work – be that study, paid work and worrying about it when I’m not doing it – I know the consequences it has had on my health.
Significantly this report identifies factories and construction sites as two of the three main sectors “hit” by bank holidays. Forgoing any reality that many of these continue to work during bank holidays given the practicalities of shutting down completely, these sectors are those which require mental sharpness to ensure quality and to prevent accidents. Here tiredness can definitely kill. And even Victorian industrialists recognised the importance of giving their workers time off. Recharging the batteries is a phrase with real meaning. Remember when you had a tape Walkman and let the batteries run down – the music suddenly didn’t sound so good and you were left disappointed. We’ve moved forward in personal music technology but seem to have moved backwards in the minds of some.
We live in the 21st Century and after years of progress our leisure time is valued and important. On an economic level leisure time has generated it own worth through all the activities we do in our time off from DIY and eating out to outdoor leisure pursuits and weekends away. The report wishes to suggest that these are not as valuable to the economy as industry or construction. It is disingenuous to blame the Bank Holiday for this imbalance and blame is better laid at the door of economic and industrial policy not the provision of Bank Holidays. Unfortunately for the report’s authors, on this the horse bolted sometime long ago and no new lock will save it now.
But all of this discussion of the economics forgets us as humans. Our sole purpose is not to generate economic value it is to make the most of this life. Whilst part of this involves working, there is so much more that we can enjoy. I was once asked if I lived to work and the truth was I did (and some would say still do!). Some believe they are born to give, some born to make a difference and many who feel they have to do what is right by working. Through these feelings of obligation their economic contribution to the country, their families or just themselves becomes paramount. But what does that gain if the individual is unable to enjoy the fruits of their labour which for many of us is the wage or salary we earn. Bank holidays provide some brief and often shared downtime in an otherwise hectic and difficult to coordinate life. They are precious in this big picture of life even if the economists want to hunt them down. And by the way we enjoy our time off we very often spend money so it is hardly a loss to the economy.
Be it Bank Holidays, parental leave, health and safety, on the job training or there is a ready supply of those who want to put economics before the person. Yet these reports and models are paper exercises usually led by those who believe we live in models. Life is not a model, it is lived and changes by the minute, it is unpredictable, it is fast and frenetic. These are the things to enjoy and the very reasons we need a break.
But there is an elephant in the room in all of this: what is wrong with a day off? As I keep trying to tell myself, nothing! Just enjoy. Economists would do well to take note.