First, let me start this by saying I have not been a poster child for this vacationing thing. Believe me, I’ve heard about the importance of getting away and have read all the health benefits associated with regular vacations, but you know how it goes. The busier we are, the harder it is to get away.
But this is my year. This will be the year I will reach my goal to vacation better. What does that actually mean, you ask? Well, it’s easy to feel like you’re trapped and can’t get away. Maybe you work for a company that only gives two weeks a year for vacation or you run your own business like myself and feel like you can’t get away because everything will fall apart if you leave.
I tend to follow that latter belief myself. But I woke up last year and realized I hadn’t really vacationed in years other than the work trips I tried to trick myself into believing were vacations. I was overworked, mentally tired and it was taking its toll.
So what’s deal? If we are worn down and always complaining about how much we need to get away for bit, why don’t we? What’s standing in the way?
Why We Don’t Vacation
I believe that we as a country are conditioned to ignore vacation days. Compared to countries in Europe and even Canada, the importance we put on them is next to nothing. In fact, the U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t legally have to give paid vacations and holidays. (1) Australians get four weeks off by law, Europeans four or five weeks and France and Finland have the most mandated time off—30 days. (2) What is wrong with America?
I think our disregard of time off has become some kind of symbol of how hard we work. It’s like a badge of honor to tell someone how long our work days are, how we’ve worked on the weekends and that we haven’t taken time off in two years. Instead of sounding absolutely crazy like it should, for our overachiever-society it makes us feel like we are a step ahead of our competition or just a better worker. I remember working at one of the world’s largest public accounting firms and co-workers bragging about how they got in at 6am and turned the lights out at 10pm. Wow- but we all know someone like this, it’s not that rare in our culture.
Maybe our lack of vacation stems from fear. You might be afraid that your boss and co-workers will see you as absent and not committed to your work if you take a week off. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll lose a chance at a promotion or there’s a downsize looming over your head. And maybe still, you’re just afraid you don’t have the resources. Money might be tight and you don’t think you can financially handle it.
Whatever the reason is, we need to fix it. Only 14 percent of Americans will take a vacation of two weeks or more this year and the standard vacation in the U.S. is down to a long weekend. (2) For the sake of your sanity, your family and your health, I’m telling you now that we need to change that statistic.
Why Vacations are Important
Here’s a little fact for you – an annual vacation can cut the risk of heart attack in men by 30 percent and in women by 50 percent. (2) Isn’t that enough convincing just right there? Obviously there is a link between work stress and our health.
“When you’re stressed out and tired, you are more likely to become ill, your arteries take a beating, and you’re more likely to have an accident. Your sleep will suffer, you won’t digest your food as well, and even the genetic material in the cells of your body may start to become altered in a bad way.” Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and contributor to Psychology Today. (3)
Business psychologist Sharon Melnick also notes that 80 percent of workers feel stress on the job and 70 percent of healthcare provider visits are due to stress-related conditions. (1) Our health is in dire need of some time away from the office and stress from being overworked.
Vacations also make you more efficient when you are in the office. You can spend your time at the office taking care of all the client facing things you have to do and can then make your time away about planning and the big picture idea stuff you don’t need to be in the office anyway. A recent study also showed how vacations boost energy reserves so that you need less effort to get work done when you return. Self-reported job performance is “significantly higher after a vacation,” says respite expert Dov Eden of the University of Tel Aviv. (2)
The recharge from a vacation refuels your work life and hits a fresh button on your health. Those are two things that just shouldn’t be sacrificed.
While the outlook is rather bleak here in America, there are some amazing exceptions. There are a handful (a whopping four percent as of a few years ago) of companies in the U.S. that offer sabbaticals. (4)
Sabbaticals are often associated with church clergy, but many wise CEOs offer these extended breaks to employees who have been with a company for a pre-determined amount of time. Companies like MeetUp, General Mills, Nike and QuickTrip allow their long-standing employees to take months and sometimes a whole year off work to recharge and be with family.
“For anyone who has worked on overload for a period of years, it is a way to clear the mind. While on the sabbatical, the employee has an opportunity to rediscover old interests and friends, explore new ideas, travel, get fit, do retirement pre-planning or a special project, take care of family needs, and much more. It broadens perspective and makes personal and professional priorities clearer.”-Nancy Bearg, co-author of Reboot Your Life: Energizing Your Career and Life By Taking A Break. (4)
There’s a great TED talk by graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister who shares about shutting his design company down every seven years for a year sabbatical. I highly recommend taking the 17 minutes to watch his talk. You’ll really start to understand how much of a game changer this time away can be both professionally and personally. I’ve even had some close friends take a five month trip around the world. They were able to hit pause on their careers for a period of time which turned out to be amazing for them.
Maybe something like this isn’t realistic for you right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t vacation in more effective ways.
Small Steps to Disconnect
Technology makes it so easy to get away and simultaneously check in from time to time. For example, I was feeling trapped running a firm with employees and many clients in a volatile stock market, so I never left. But then I realized, I didn’t have to totally disconnect. I could take baby steps to learn how to disconnect over time.
I knew I eventually wanted to totally disconnect while on a true vacation, but this was a great start. I went skiing with my men’s group for five days and each morning and night while everyone else was laying around I would check emails. I could even keep up with emails during the day and still disconnect for a couple hours at a time to ski and take in the scenery.
I just needed to prove to myself that I could leave the office, life would go on and my business wouldn’t crumble. Next I’ll challenge myself to not check any work stuff over a weekend, then I’ll try for a whole week trip. The ultimate goal is to be able to disconnect enough to rest and have some freedom and clarity.
If you are anything like me and need to take those small steps, here are a couple more tips to help you disconnect and find rest and freedom in your next vacation:
Prep before you leave: Make a list of work and home things that need to be done before you leave. Having this visual reminder will help you feel accomplished as you cross off each item as completed. When the list done, your mind will be clear of any burdens and you can enjoy your time away.
Trust your clients: Some of us, especially those of us who work for ourselves, might think that our clients will move on to someone else if we let them know we are out of pocket. We’re afraid they won’t trust our work ethic and will fire us for someone who constantly works around the clock.
“In reality, you teach people how you will be treated. More often I find that clients respect your asserted desire to be unplugged.” Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., consultant and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Steps to Crush your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love (5)
Set expectations: Let everyone in your office and your clients know that you will be unreachable. Delegate your tasks and set up a chain of command so your clients and co-workers know who can help them when you are away. And if you do need to check in from time to time, keep your boundaries. Maybe you only check emails for an hour in the morning or before leaving for dinner. Let your co-workers know that this will be the only time you are reachable and leave it there.
Plot it out: Sometimes planning your vacation builds the best anticipation for your time away. When thinking of activities, make sure to include some type of exercise. Whether it’s a hike in the woods, a walk on the beach or ditching the cab to walk a few more blocks, the time away from your desk should be filled with physical activity to get your heart rate up and mind moving. And add in a thing or two that’s outside of your comfort zone. These types of challenging experiences are what memories are made of and open your mind to think more freely.
Don’t feel guilty that you are away: The point is to get away and work out all your stress. Don’t feel bad because you are gone or because others are back at the office. This is time that you have earned and you should enjoy it. Be a source of inspiration for others and a leader in this movement to break our cultural resistance to meaningful, healthy vacations.
- The Best Reason Ever to Take a Two Week Vacation by Kristi Hedges
- The Vanishing Vacation: Why You Need a Break by Joe Robinson
- Why Taking Vacations is Important for Your Health by Timi Gustafson, R.D.
- Why Companies Offer Sabbaticals to Long-Term Employees by Monster.com
- 10 Tricks to Work Less on Vacation by Kate Ashford