21 May 2012

Chill out – the PM taking a break is good for us

He is in charge of the UK at one of the toughest times in recent history, yet he likes to wind down whenever he can. Is David Cameron’s tendency to “chillax” good for him – and the country?

David Cameron celebrates Chelsea's Champions League win during the G8 summit at Camp David

An updated biography of the prime minister, published this week, suggests Mr Cameron likes to switch off from the daily pressures of his job and enjoy some “me time” with the family at Chequers, his country retreat.

His biographers say he enjoys karaoke, tennis and “three or four glasses of wine after lunch” on Sundays when duties allow.

The prime minister laughed off the obvious inference about his approach to his job, saying: “If I find myself with some spare time I will have a look at this fascinating novel someone has written about me.”

But is having a work-life balance permissible for a prime minister?

Dr Alexandra Beauregard, who as a lecturer in employment relations at the London School of Economics, specialises in work-life balance, says his approach makes for a better, more effective leader.

Implications for motivation

“I’m not by any means saying I agree with any or most of his policies, but this is one area where he’s definitely got it right,” she said.

“The more high-pressure your job is, the more important [it is] to take time out and prioritise, not just with family, but to decompress from work, re-energise yourself and go back to work with greater energy, physical and psychological.”

Dr Beauregard, whose works include a study of links between work-home culture and employee well-being, said: “There is evidence that the higher the work-life conflict, the more work takes over the rest of your life, [resulting in] higher stress levels. Your job performance goes down.

“There are real implications for motivation, and in a high-level job you don’t want someone with a lot of stress to burn out. The more you can do to reduce stress, the better.”

But can a man – or woman – go too far the other way? Shadow chancellor Ed Balls suggested that while everybody was entitled to a break, Mr Cameron did not always appear to be “on top of the issues”.

Dr Beauregard: “I don’t think that is terribly fair. It depends how much time you are taking off, but a day or two at the weekend? I think that is fine, personally.”

Of course, it’s not just prime ministers with families who might want a leisurely distraction from the pressures of high office.

What are three or four glasses of wine?

Small: 4.5 – 6 units
Large: 9-12 units

Recommended weekly maximum for men: 21 units

‘Why take the chance?’

Sir Edward Heath somehow managed to fit in world-class yacht racing, piano playing and concert conducting while running a country beset by troubles in Northern Ireland, economic woes and three-day weeks.

Tony Blair was fond of tennis and also kept a guitar at Number 10.

Further afield, President Barack Obama – another light sleeper – is reportedly fond of television series (a time-consuming occupation if ever there was one).

And among his predecessors, George W Bush seemed to spend much of his time on holiday or back home in Texas, while Ronald Reagan is said to have uttered the memorable words: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”

Mr Cameron’s fondness for a few glasses of wine on a Sunday afternoon may attract attention, particularly in an era in which “sensible drinking” is encouraged.

But his consumption pales against that of many former leaders.

Tony Blair admitted in his memoir, A Journey, to using alcohol as a prop to escape the pressures of his job.

“Stiff whisky or G&T before dinner, couple of glasses of wine, or even half a bottle with it,” he wrote. “So not excessively excessive. I had a limit. But I was aware that it was a prop.”

Olympic medal for drinking

Referring to a colloquialism for a person who drinks alcohol, especially to excess, Mr Blair declared: “By the standards of days gone by I was not even remotely a toper, and I couldn’t do lunchtime drinking except on Christmas Day, but if you took the thing everyone always lies about – units per week – I was definitely at the outer limit.”

Lady Thatcher, too, who famously was said to have run the country on little more than three hours’ sleep a night, preferred Scotch, reportedly before lunch as well as during her busy evenings.

Herbert Asquith, who wore the soubriquet “Squiffy” with some justification, was said sometimes to sway at the dispatch box.

But as a leader in critical times, it is hard to look beyond the exploits of wartime prime minister Sir Winston Churchill, who by his own admission took “more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me”.

Champagne and brandy suited his broad tastes, but he seemed unfazed by the perception it engendered of him.

Confronted by Labour MP Bessie Braddock that he was drunk, his response became legendary: “Yes, madam, I am drunk. But in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”