Pilita Clark: Why only fools work in August

A summer month that should be pleasantly productive in the office is far too busy this year

Instead of going on a hike with friends in the summer sunshine last Sunday, I sat inside and grumpily wrote an article that had to be finished by Monday. Annoyingly, the only person I could blame for this was me.

I could have done the work earlier if I had not had a gossipy lunch with a former boss, or rooftop drinks with people from work, or a three-hour fight with the FT’s violently user-unfriendly expenses system.

All these things were done deliberately as part of my plan to WTA, or Work Through August, a month when you can get on with loads of paperwork and catch-ups without distraction.

Or so I thought. Two weeks into the programme, I am having a rethink and, as things stand, I am coming to the view that only idiots work in August.


Part of the problem is that in the northern hemisphere this year, a lot of other people seem to be on the same WTA plan. Maybe they are keen to make up for lost business and get back into the swing of things as the pandemic eases and the risk of recession looms. Perhaps they want to avoid the worst of the travel chaos gripping airports around the world. It is possible that, like me, they have personal reasons for taking leave in July or September, when in any case air fares are cheaper and beaches emptier.

Either way, my expectations have been shaken, starting with the vision of cycling to work through quiet London streets and gliding straight to the best bike parking spot at my office before finding a last-minute table at a summer-emptied eatery. It turns out that neither the streets nor my favourite restaurants are empty, and the office bike racks are still rammed.

When I get to my desk I am not surrounded by a sea of empty seats but by companionable colleagues who, unfortunately for them, I am prone to distract. This distraction takes time that might otherwise be spent doing things like finishing articles due in on a Monday.

The result is unsettling. Not long after working on that sunny Sunday, I overheard a colleague telling someone on the phone: “I’m here till the middle of August and then I’m away on leave.” This made me jealous, even though I had just had two perfectly good weeks off in July.

At first I thought I was the only one with an unexpectedly active office. But others in the city have the same problem. One friend who had his hopes of a quietly productive August dashed by office busyness blames the rise of hybrid working. Now that remote working is more acceptable, he thinks people are clocking on in August while also being at the coast with their families.

Elsewhere, I have heard familiar gripes that remind me how good it was to take all my summer holidays in August last year.

First, there are the losers in the race for summer leave who must fill in for absent poolside colleagues, on top of normal workloads. This should be good news for young strivers or anyone keen to make their mark. The trouble is, a lot of striving – and excellent work – goes unnoticed when one’s boss is doing what bosses tend to do in August: lie on the beach.

Even more unfairly, the same managers often come roaring back in September, fizzing with ideas. The sight of an empty desk irks them, even if it has been vacated by an exhausted August toiler finally freed from holding the summer fort. In fact, I know of August workers who wait until October to take a holiday, only to have a clueless manager bark: “What? You’re going on holiday again?”

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All up, it strikes me that the world would be more civilised if there were wider recognition of summer serfdom. I recently came across a law in Iceland that entitles workers to extend their holidays by 25 per cent if their employer requires them to work through the official summer period.

When I asked the relevant government department in Reykjavik whether there were any signs that this idea was catching on in other countries, a helpful person said they were not aware that it was.

It seems a stretch to imagine much enthusiasm for the move in these economically uncertain times. So, it is probably best to gird oneself, embrace the inevitable and make very sure that next August, you are nowhere to be seen.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022