Should all workers get unhappiness leave? It beats awaydays, work-life balance seminars and company yoga | Emma Beddington

No more croaky, fake phone-in-sick voice for the employees of one regional Chinese supermarket chain: the founder of Pang Dong Lai, Yu Donglai, is offering employees up to 10 days’ “unhappiness leave”.

“I want every staff member to have freedom. Everyone has times when they’re not happy, so if you’re not happy, do not come to work,” Yu said at an industry conference, according to the South China Morning Post. Staff can take “unhappy days” when they want, in addition to normal sick and holiday leave entitlements, and management can’t refuse: “Denial is a violation,” Yu said. He seems like a decent boss: employee salaries are nearly double the sector average, and Yu has reportedly spoken out against China’s long hours culture and said: “We want our employees to have a healthy and relaxed life, so that the company will be too.” (Though, combined with Pang Dong Lai’s slogan, “Freedom and love”, there’s a slight echo of the “free granola bar, nap pod, good vibes” tyranny of tech’s punishing work culture.)

At heart, “unhappy days” aren’t that different from duvet, wellness or mental health days, those other corporate concessions to the various manifestations of late capitalism’s malaise. Still, whatever you call it, a no-questions-asked day off is definitely better than those team awaydays where you plant some trees or pick litter in corporate-branded T-shirts, or online work-life balance seminars (or indeed the lunchtime yoga in the library offered by the law firm that I used to work for, with the partner who was shouting at you about spreadsheets an hour ago downward-dogging next to you in his socks). I read recently about a US law firm giving associates working 16-hour days a “sleep kit” of a pillow spray and eye mask.

The real difference with “unhappy days” is the bluntness of the language. That may be a translation quirk – perhaps it sounds as mealy-mouthed as “mental health day” in the original – but the translation still gets to a basic truth: work doesn’t make us happy. It can be fulfilling, interesting, even important for a few, but it’s rarely a rip-roaring good time. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is nonsense: pretty much anything you love becomes a chore a good percentage of the time once you depend on it to live. Professional gamers burn out and so do influencers in over-water Maldives villas. I have the job I always wanted, but it doesn’t stop me spending an unconscionable amount of time complaining about aspects of it; a friend said only yesterday that she loved writing until she had to do it for work. I bet Yu doesn’t get up every morning thrilled to tackle the challenges of supply chain logistics.

I always find myself wondering about work and its place in May. There’s the obvious prompt of the 1st – workers’ day, celebrated by not working in all right-thinking places – and the month is studded with days off in mainland Europe, like chocolate chips in your breakfast pastry. But it’s also because May tends to be spectacularly beautiful, truly the worst time to be working. It’s a time for feeling still-green grass beneath you and the first warmth on your neck; watching the natural world unfurl and listening to birds and bees. (The swifts are back! I kicked off our annual swift-sighting text thread with my stepfather just last week.) To do anything but enjoy it – pollen permitting – feels like a waste of your life.

But here you are, at your desk, and here I am at mine. And there are all those students stuck inside revising, preparation for a life of professional frustration as much as for their exams. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could implement “bare minimum May”? A bit more radical than just “bare minimum Mondays” and definitely more fun. Failing that, perhaps enlightened employers should take Yu’s idea one step further and recognise explicitly how little of our happiness comes from what we do for them. It would just be a gesture, too, mere semantics, but how about offering us “happy days”?

The Guardian