On Taking A Month Off

Pritpal S Tamber

January 18, 2019

Some reflections on what it was like to take a whole month off work

I’m sat here trying to decide whether to go for a run or write this post. I’m opting for the latter because I’m not sure when else I’ll be able to do it, partly as I probably have a busy few days ahead of me and partly as I re-start work on Monday.

I want to take a moment to reflect on taking a whole month off work.

I decided to take a month off after my work, both in the U.K. and the US, came to a natural pause. I think in working life it’s very unusual to have a pause on all fronts (combined with a little money in the bank) that lets you just step back. And so I took the opportunity.

As I sit here now I actually struggle to even understand what my work is. For the last six years I’ve explored how health care in high-income countries fails low-income citizens, and tried to make a living from it. There have been times when the work has paid me well, and times that have been lean. There have been times when the work has been fascinating, and times that it has felt a slog. The stereotype is that the interesting work is often poorly paid, and vice versa, but that hasn’t always been true. But, overall, as I sit here now, I’m left unclear on what the day job is.

I think that’s partly because when I am doing the work I am constantly trying to remake it in ways that may lead to revenue. The challenge is to remain true to the core purpose but the constant reconfiguring is all part of the entrepreneurialism needed to do something new (at least new to me) or do something old in a new way. I think by being off for a month I have forgotten what that process feels like, which is part of what makes it hard to remember what my work is.

Of late, with only four days to go until I clock back on, I have started to think about my inbox and feel guilty about potentially letting people down. I have no idea what emails await me because I have not looked at my inbox once since December 21, 2018. I did, however, leave an out-of-office explaining how to get a hold of me through my personal email and my phone number so perhaps I should let that guilt go. Or perhaps no one actually wanted to get in touch.

This last point – that no one actually wanted to get in touch – worries me more than it perhaps should. When you’re trying to create a new narrative around why health care is failing, you need an audience for that narrative so the lack of being missed is a bigger deal than it might be in other jobs. I guess there’s a significant amount of my ego wrapped in that concern, and perhaps it illustrates my insecurities, but it’s there and there’s no point in denying it.

I’ve also felt pretty indulgent during this time off. I’ve spent loosely on my nieces and nephew (and then slapped my palm against my forehead when I saw my bank account) and allowed myself to be spoiled by my host here in Brazil (including an indulgent but insanely painful shiatsu massage yesterday). I normally live a parsimonious life, as is the way for those of us who opt to work outside of traditional careers where regular income feels like a mythical tale from lands afar. So, all in all, I don’t recognise myself, although am also trying to enjoy this finite period of being relatively (financially) care-free.

As ever, when I began this time off I planned to read all sorts of books. It’s not quite happened (nor does it ever). I did finish Love In The Time Of Cholera, which was utterly gorgeous (and made me weep a little at its very end) but I’ve otherwise been preoccupied with non-reading activities or reading about the political drama that is Brexit (and I have a strange sense of guilt for not being in London during the country’s time of crisis, although what I’d do there other than lament the idiocy of our political ‘leaders’ I’m not sure). I’m not a great reader. I can read for about 90 minutes before I get ants in my pants but I find that even on holiday I struggle to make reading a routine (beyond the daily news and analyses of it). So, yet another thing to feel guilty about.

Guilt seems to be a regular feature of this post but on a day to day basis I don’t feel guilty, as such. That’s perhaps because I’m well aware that I worked insanely hard through 2018, often while others involved in my work either failed to pull their weight or turned out to be downright incompetent. So, perhaps for this particular month off my underlying guilt is assuaged by the knowledge that I actually deserve it. That said, I don’t think one should always have an insanely hard time to have some time off work. That equation feels all wrong.

Well, that’s about it. I don’t seem to have much more to say. It may also be that taking so much time off has blunted my ability to reflect (or perhaps my reflections are always this insipid). Either way, as I head into the last weekend of my month off I think my prevailing feeling is one of curiosity. In a world where every little thing is made to matter but, in truth, nothing does, was my month-long absence even noticed?

Not much, is my guess.

Pritpal S Tamber

Independent Writer, Researcher & Consultant | pritpal@pstamber.com

I'm an independent writer, researcher and consultant focussing on community health and medical information. I'm a former physician, medical editor and medical publisher, and also the former Physician Editor of TEDMED. I began my career at The BMJ. For more information, see the About page.

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