August 9, 2018

Why you need to use your vacation (and how to make it painless to step away)

Have you taken a vacation this year?

If you said no, you’re not alone.  A poll for Glassdoor last year found the average American worker took only about half their available paid time off in the past 12 months.  And even when we take time off, we don’t always unplug — two-thirds of respondents said they spend some of their PTO working.

This always-on mentality takes a toll on our professional and personal lives.  Here’s why you need to make time for a break, and how to ensure things at work keep running smoothly in your absence.

Why we all need time off

Vacation is good for your physical health:  Skipping vacation, even just for one year, is associated with cardiovascular health consequences like heart attack and even coronary-related mortality, and men and women are both at risk.  The irony of the I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead mentality, is you may very well die younger if you don’t give yourself a break.

In addition to supporting heart health, vacation enables exhausted bodies to recover and resets sleep patterns.  When you’re not endlessly replaying conversations in your mind or staring at a screen into the wee hours, you’ll be amazed how much more rested your feel.

Vacation is good for your mental health:  Excessive working hours are associated with episodes of major depression, even among people who have no history of mental health conditions.  Vacation contributes to stress reduction, and the effect of your time off may spread beyond your own mental health to those around you.

Vacation is good for your company:  Long hours of focused work dampen key cognitive functions like reasoning, whereas letting the mind wander like you might do on a quiet beach contributes to the ability to develop creative solutions.  When you take time off, you bring new perspective back to your role and your team.

When you step away, you also enable your team to shine.  Leaving tasks in their hands empowers them to test and grow their skills.  Anywhere they fall short is a growth area for all of you.

How to make it work when you feel like you can’t

Even if you’re sold on the benefits of vacation, the idea may still be overwhelming. Some tips that will help:

1. Use the time leading up to vacation to clarify processes.  As you document how you work and develop back-up plans, you are likely to encounter opportunities for improvement.  Seize them.  It’ll make your time off easier on those left behind, and you will return to a more efficient way of doing things.

2. Provide advance notice to key contacts.  Are there clients who might need something from you before you leave?  Do important partners need some time to prepare for your absence?  Give them a heads-up a week or two before you leave so any issues can be dealt with ahead of your vacation.  Do the same with colleagues, especially those who will be covering for you in your absence.

3. Decide how much you’ll unplug, and communicate it widely.  Will you be checking email?  How often, and how responsive will you be?  If not, are you reachable by phone and under what circumstances should you be called?  What can your team handle without you, and when must they bring you in?  There is no right answer for everyone, but it is important to set and adhere to clear expectations.

4. Build in re-entry time.  There’s nothing that erases that post-vacation glow quite like rolling into the house on Sunday night and off to work Monday morning without time for unpacking, grocery shopping or getting back into a 9-to-5 frame of mind. If you can’t add a day off or come home a day early, consider working from home that first day back to ease the transition.

Making progress

It’s probably never going to be easy for many of us to take time off.  But I think Americans are getting the message that they need to find a way.  According to Project: Time Off, Americans’ vacation use last year reached the highest level yet of the past seven years.

You know, I recently took my own step in the right direction.  While planning a beach trip, I gave myself a lengthy to-do list including a pile of writing for this community.  Do you know what I ended up doing instead?  I slept.  I soaked up the healing sand, sun and seawater.  I came home more restored than I’ve felt in a long time.  I sat down the following Monday refreshed and ready to face my to-do list, and I finished what I needed to.  It was the best of all worlds.

Do you take time off from work?

When did you last take a vacation, and what benefits did you see?

Last updated August 9, 2018