Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Importance of Taking A Vacation

Taking A Break Pays Off!

By Mary Abbajay

As great as a week (or two) at the beach sounds, would you believe that one-third of working Americans will not use all of their allotted vacation time this year? And if they do, half of the time they take their work with them. Sure, the economy is rough and many of us are holding on to our jobs for dear life, but come on. Take that vacation already. Here’s why.

The American Way

What is it about Americans? About 40 percent of American workers don’t take any vacation at all. Twenty-five percent of American workers don’t even get vacation time. In the industrialized world, Americans rank last in terms of vacation. We average two weeks a year while Europeans average six.

While the current economic situation may affect how and where people vacation, it is probably having a residual effect of the simple act (and paid perk) of taking a vacation. People may actually be afraid to take their vacation time for fear it will make them look less dedicated, or give someone else an opportunity in their place, or are simply afraid to leave their company for any reason, be it self importance or inertia.

But the fact of the matter is that taking a vacation is a proven way to reduce stress and rejuvenate yourself. You may be afraid to do it, but you will be much better off for it.

The Benefits of a Vacation

Imbibing fruity drinks is not only the only benefit to a vacation. Studies show again and again that vacations reduce stress, promote creativity, stave off burnout, strengthen personal and familial relationships and help job performance. Vacations de-stress and re-charge. Seriously, vacations are an absolute physical and emotional necessity. We are healthier for it, by sleeping more, eating better, maybe even exercising a bit. We get away from work, and that is a good thing.

Every management guru (and good boss) knows that taking frequent breaks from work promotes better brain activity and creative thinking. When someone is exhausted or stressed, their mind shuts down to the point where they are no longer productive or effective. So you have to occasionally get away from work to be the most productive at work. Most high-tech companies have this figured out, which is why they feature lavish and funky break rooms with baristas, couches, scooters, massage therapists, video games and the like to help their employees disconnect and recharge.

The yearly two-week vacation is the equivalent to the fifteen-minute break in the workday; it is an essential component to one’s mental and physical health, and the hallmark of a productive person. What are you waiting for?

Making the Most of It

Now that you are convinced of the imperative of taking a vacation, it is essential to remember that not all vacations are created equal. What’s great for one person may be a nightmare for another. And some vacations may actually cause more stress and make you worse off. Like to lie around and do nothing? Then that ambitious trek through all the cathedrals of Northern Europe may not be the trip for you. Conversely, if you are a type A who loves to go go go, then two weeks on a remote beach may make you crazy. The vacation you take should match not just your interest but your energy level as well.

By the same token, what you take on vacation is important, too. By that I mean try not to take your work with you. Why are you taking your Blackberry and laptop with you? Unless you are running your own business, where your absence will be detrimental, you are not getting paid to respond to emails and voicemails. So leave the work gadgets behind. However, for some people, just knowing that they can stay connected might help them alleviate the anxiety of even taking a vacation. In that case, by all means, take them with you. Remember: the point of a vacation is not necessarily to do nothing. The point is to disconnect and disengage yourself from your work.

If you are a business owner put someone in charge. If you have to take your gadgets with you, try to use them for monitoring and updates, rather than running the show. Try to observe, rather than involve yourself.

It’s also important to know yourself well enough to know what length of vacation will work best for you. Some people like to take one big one, while others like to take lots of four-day weekends. It’s all about you and how quickly you can disconnect from work. Several short vacations throughout the year can be as beneficial as one good long one. Whatever recharges your batteries best is what you should do.

And you should take the time to lay the groundwork for your vacation. A few weeks before your vacation (after you’ve cleared it with your boss), inform your colleagues, clients and anyone else who may be impacted by your absence when and how long you will be gone. Make sure those who need to know, know. Make a list of all your current projects and their status. Ensure that your back up is clear about where to find all information. Make sure you put an away message on your email, phone, and cell phone, and be clear about your time frame. And be sure to include a contact person for your absence. Make sure your office knows under what circumstances you should be reached. And finally, you have to trust your colleagues to manage things while you are gone. It’ll be OK. Honestly.

Getting Back to Work

The hardest part about taking a vacation is coming back and returning to hundreds of papers, emails and voicemails. But you don’t have to face Monday morning with dread.

First of all, try to return a full day ahead of your scheduled return to work so that you can catch up at home. If I am going to be on vacation and return to work on a Monday, I try to get home by Saturday so that I have all day Sunday to get my house in order – unpack, check and answer messages, do laundry, sort through the mail, grocery shop, etc. That way, when I return to work, at least my home front is back in order.

On Monday, start early. Try to arrive before others so that you can get a jump on things without being distracted. Turn off your vacation responders or change your messages. Then, start with e-mails. Go through them quickly, deleting junk and prioritizing the rest. Ditto the mail and your messages. Then, schedule an appointment with your boss or assistant for later in the morning

to bring you up to date quickly. And instead of having a half dozen conversations with colleagues about your trip, try to get everyone together at once over coffee or lunch. Don’t let being away suck you into a stressful, overworked situation from the get-go. Just prioritize and stay focused. And remember to take a break.

You can hear Mary discuss this topic on the radio. Click on The Working Life audio:

Mary Abbajay is a partner in the Careerstone Group, a full service organizational and leadership development consultancy that specializes in creating effective, productive and positive workplaces where high-engagement meets high performance. She can be reached at