Recently I was interviewed for an Associated Press story on managing our work lives in order to be able to take vacations longer than four days. The trend has been toward short vacations, since people feel they can’t take more time given the press of work. Actually I believe taking several small vacations a year can be very healthy and wise – perhaps better than saving it all up with no break until a longer vacation occurs once a year. Whether long or short, everybody really needs and benefits from a real vacation, that is not tied to the office and thinking about day-to-day work concerns all the time. But managing it, and managing a vacation of at least a week or more, is truly difficult for many people.
For some people with well compensated, demanding jobs, affording the vacation or even making the time may not be as serious an issue as the psychological issues: Some companies encourage their personnel to take vacations because they believe they will be more productive if they do. Is work pressure the underlying reason they feel they can’t leave, or is it a need to feel indispensable? Can they delegate more and let go of control? Or they may fear that someone else will take over their work and be viewed more favorably, develop relationships with clients, etc. And what’s more, the mail and e-mail and voicemail they expect to come back to may seem overwhelming.
So how to manage work life in order to have a longer, satisfying, and rejuvenating vacation?
Planning is key. I suggest steps similar to those for developing a longer term flexible work arrangement and that you think in terms of collaboration and teamwork.
If the organization encourages and supports people taking vacations, a team approach to covering responsibilities can more easily be established. For the employers who are reluctant to let people take vacations insisting work comes first and foremost (and may not take much vacation time themselves), make a business case for the vacation you want to take. For example, estimate the increase in dollars from your productivity when you return rejuvenated and energized from the vacation. Point out the opportunity you may have to make new business contacts or get creative new product ideas when away. With your business case, submit a detailed plan for coverage while you are on vacation.
Now to today's inevitable question of staying electronically connected or not. Some people love the convenience and peace of mind of checking in with their blackberrys, voicemail and laptops tagging along. Others resent that because it is possible, it becomes the expectation rather than the exception. Clearly, being electronically connected renders it less of a vacation. Every individual has to factor the expectations and peace of mind into the equation and make a personal decision on this question. If you decide to check in, be disciplined about it. Set a time each day to check in, but don't do it frequently unless there is a real emergency that can't be avoided or handled by someone else back in the office.
My rule for myself, for example, is that I don't work on vacations once I get to the destination, but in transit – on a plane, in a car, on a train on the way to the destination – I will if I have a lot of deadlines facing me when I return. (I work very well on planes and trains, so it's a good opportunity for me.) When out of the U.S. or Canada, I don't even check voicemail and I leave that to my assistant to handle. She can contact me wherever I am if it is truly urgent.
Of course you should leave your itinerary and contact information with an assistant or other colleague for urgent situations - but be sure to define precisely what you mean by “urgent” or you may be chased down and bothered unnecessarily.
I hope these guidelines will help you and your colleagues work out satisfying and responsible vacation arrangements that make a “reasonably long” (however you define that) vacation what it should be. In my opinion, both the individual and the organization will benefit.
© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2004. All rights reserved.