Breda O’Brien: Why Pope Francis should take a holiday

The Pope should strike a blow against the ‘overwork’ culture

Pope Francis doesn't really take holidays. Apparently he never has, not even in childhood. Austen Ivereigh, in his book The Great Reformer, describes how the future pope's family were not precisely poor, but holidays were out of the question.

Jorge Bergoglio’s first paying job was when his father found him work as a cleaner when he was in his early teens. He continued to work right through secondary school.

When a priest could not find a replacement in order to take holidays, the bishop would often step in instead, sometimes for weeks.

Since becoming pope, Francis waves Pope Emeritus Benedict off to Castel Gandolfo, but he himself stays behind in Rome. This year, he took on a gruelling trip to Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador during the traditional holiday time.


Perhaps to make up for the loss of revenue to Castel Gandolfo because fewer tourists come in the summer to see the pope, Francis has opened up the spectacular gardens to visitors on Saturday mornings. But he almost never strolls there himself.

In the first summer of his papacy, it was rumoured that he felt uncomfortable taking holidays when so many Italians could not afford them. But it now appears that not taking holidays was an established habit.

Pope Francis has cheerfully referred to this habit of preferring to stay at home rather than take holidays as a “neurosis”. He says he rests where he is by reading more, listening to music, and praying.

It may not be a neurosis, but it is certainly in line with trends.

Less time off

According to a survey by online travel agent Expedia (not exactly a disinterested party), Irish people have fewer holidays than most Europeans – 22 days compared with the European average of 28. Apparently, though, the Irish don’t avail of 8 per cent of their holidays.

A different survey, this one by CPL, a recruitment agency, suggests something similar. Of people working in four main sectors (IT and telecoms; science, engineering and supply chain; sales, marketing and retail; and accountancy, finance and banking), 51 per cent do not take their full holidays.

There is a definite cultural bias in favour of overwork. It is not as bad as it is in Japan, where they even have a word for death from overwork – karoshi.

According to the labour ministry, most Japanese people take only about nine of the 18.5 days to which they are entitled. Last February, the Japanese government announced that it would legislate to force people to take at least five days’ holidays.

Along with overwork comes an irony deficit. Employees of the Japanese health ministry will be forced to stop working at 10pm from October. A previous, voluntary attempt to get the employees to leave failed, even after lights were switched off in the offices.

Way back in the 1960s, there used to be serious discussions about how people would fill all their leisure time, given the decreased workload due to automation.

Interestingly, there is some evidence that self-reported work hours are vastly overestimated. Fortune magazine once concluded that people who claimed to work extreme hours, such as 75 hours a week, were off by about 25 hours. (Still, 50 hours amount to five 10-hour days.)

Quantity vs quality

Even where people really work long hours, it is accepted that they are not automatically more efficient. The often maligned Greeks work the longest hours in Europe, much longer than Ireland, but their efficiency levels are far lower than ours.

And yet, it seems as if Irish people are more stressed and harried in their workplaces than they ever have been. This includes public sector workers. Cutbacks mean many do the work of colleagues who were never replaced as well as their own.

Also, there are increasing numbers in insecure contract work in the private sector who are forced to take every hour available to them just to scrape along financially. For them, holidays are out of the question.

For those fortunate enough to have “good jobs”, perhaps the biggest change is the “always on” culture.

Mobile phones mean that the normal divide between work and home becomes blurred to the point of disappearance. People check their emails on the beach, or take work-related phone calls when supposedly on holiday with their kids.

Our family goes to Connemara every summer, and one of the reasons I love it is because there is no mobile phone signal and no internet in the house. There is no TV either, and even the radio reception is a bit dodgy. For two weeks, it is bliss.

Pope Francis gave up television 25 years ago and does not even watch football matches, relying on the Swiss Guards to update him on the fortunes of San Lorenzo, his favourite Buenos Aires football team.

Given his popularity, the pope could do us all a favour, and strike a blow against the overwork culture, by giving up the habit of not taking holidays. I reckon that his boss, who seemed to appreciate the value of getting away from it all, would approve.