How much vacation time a position earns is a key factor when people consider accepting a new position, yet almost half of working professionals never use their full vacation allotment. Many say they are just too busy or don’t have people who can cover for them. Even those who do head to the beach stay tethered to email and phone calls. That’s not good because time away, especially after a year-plus of extreme challenge, is critical for gaining new perspectives, pondering personal and professional goals and simply recharging. What you do before, during and after vacation can make it work for you.
There was a time when American workers actually went on vacation. Without laptops and cell phones to keep them tied to their workplaces, they got as caught up as humanly possible, made arrangements for colleagues to cover for them, put projects on hold and took off.
We think of vacations as desirable and even important; a recent study by Linked in found that nearly three-quarters of professionals would turn down a job offer if the vacation policy didn’t meet their expectations. Yet, nearly half don’t take that highly sought-after vacation time and even more check email and take calls while away.
After one of the most tumultuous and challenging years in our shared history (and with resilience still needed to continue the fight), it may be time to go retro and think about a real vacation.
Exemption from service
The roots of the word we know as vacation come from Anglo-French terms for “exemption from service, respite from work” and “to be empty, free and have leisure.” In other words, to stop working.
Although it’s easy to come up with reasons why so many of your vacation days go unused (too busy, company culture, too hard to dig out when you return) if you look closely at the benefits, you might start packing your bags. They include improved productivity, lower stress and better mental health. Project: Time Off also found that employees whose companies encourage vacation use are happier with their jobs than those who work at places where vacation is discouraged or simply not talked about.
In addition to relaxation, vacations can provide a new point of view. That can range from getting enough downtime to ponder what is most important to you to giving your brain the freedom to noodle through problems while you paddle in the pool. Research from Rice University found that spending time abroad can help people understand themselves better, see the world in new ways, increase empathy and cultivate new ideas.
In a study published in the Journal of Happiness Research, longer vacations (those of 14 days or more) contributed even more to health and wellbeing. The ability to relax on vacation and to exert more personal control drove the most persistent after-vacation positive effects.
Make vacation work for you
Just as planning can help you organize a great vacation; planning can help you actually make it relaxing. Consider this before, during and after approach.
Before you mark the time on the calendar, talk with your supervisor about the best time to be away, coordinate with other team members and start setting expectations that you will essentially be unavailable during that time.
Next, put your strategic planning skills to work. Start with a wide view of your current workload and critical deadlines and decide what must be handled before you go (being realistic and not perfectionistic), what others can move forward in your absence and what will wait until your return. Recognize and accept that it is not possible to have a totally clean slate before walking out the door.
During your vacation is an excellent opportunity to empower direct reports with greater authority and responsibility to serve in your stead in ways that will enrich their skills and enable you to relax. Then, exercise self-control and avoid constant email check-ins or participating in meetings where others can share highlights later.
Partnering with team members, you can offer mutual support to cover for one another when it’s time to unplug. Sometimes, what we describe as being unable to step away is really an unwillingness to step away or FOMO. Trust your team and colleagues to keep you in the loop as needed. If you have a close friend at work, you can even ask them to give you a heads-up if anything needs your immediate attention.
If you must remain in close contact, schedule a daily check-in to address all issues one time during the day.
After you return, consider coming in an hour or two early on your first day back or
scheduling Sunday afternoon to dive back into email to lessen the sense of overwhelm on Monday morning. If possible, leave your calendar fairly open on your first day back with only a meeting with your team and a check-in with your boss so you can catch up.
This is also the time to show gratitude to those who helped make it possible for you to take a breather, and to demonstrate that you are refreshed and ready to go. Recognize that others may not feel as energized and may need you to pick up the ball a bit.
Vacation does a body (and mind) good, so consider swapping out the guilt trip for a real one —or even a week in your own backyard. You will likely return with greater concentration, less irritation, more rested and, perhaps, with some creative new ideas.