Remove summer vacation roadblocks!

Perhaps you are among the millions of Americans who relish the idea of a summer vacation. You consider the options, make some loose plans, perhaps you even buy clothes or equipment. But do you actually take the time?

A few weeks ago, Drake Bennett wrote an article for the Boston Globe called, The Best Vacation Ever. In the article, Bennett reviews the work of psychologists and behavioural economists, and consequently has gleaned advice as to what really matters in regard to our vacations. Now, as this is published, we find ourselves half way through the summer vacation season. For those of you who talk about it, but haven’t taken the time, here are a few thoughts on the matter.

Not surprisingly, Bennett’s article states some people must force themselves to take their vacation. Apparently we human types tend to procrastinate on things that bring us pleasure, in addition to those deemed less pleasurable.  “Odd as it seems, people are often reluctant to take advantage of opportunities for pleasure that they do have, unless they’re in some way compelled,” states Bennett.  But is this the result of procrastination? To find out more, I asked a friend why, in her experience, employees tend to put off taking vacation.  She offered several observations.

The first was a cultural observation about Americans, in general. Americans, she asserts, seem to live by the adage that “he [or she] who works the most wins”, whereas Europeans are practiced at taking time off. Having lived in Europe myself, I tend to agree. Despite evidence suggesting that we need breaks from our work, for our physical and mental health, American workers seem to think that more work equals better results. However, this is unlikely to be true from a long-term perspective, since without opportunities to rejuvenate our minds and bodies, our creative thinking diminishes and the fulfillment we might receive from our work slackens.

Another point this HR executive made is likely related to her first point, but important enough to consider in and of itself. “Leaders don’t understand they’re being watched,” she shared. If the organization’s leaders do not take vacation time, their direct reports are more prone to reflect their actions. Anyone trying to “get ahead” or be recognized by their superior does not want to be noticed for taking vacation if the leader doesn’t do so. This places the onus on executives and other leaders to set the example that a balanced life includes time away from work.

And why don’t some leaders go on vacation? My friend suggests that many leaders have not developed outside interests. As they have progressed throughout their careers, leaders have made many sacrifices including long hours at the office and eschewing vacation time – all with the intention of aspiring to a higher position or meeting their goals. This focus on work has left little time to develop interests in things outside the workplace. Further, they enjoy their work and the pace of their lives. Why change anything?

Because  time away from the office helps us lead a more balanced life, which in turn contributes to our overall well-being.  And while for some, the ideal vacation includes total relaxation away from everything and everyone, many leaders would consider this the worst vacation of all and a complete waste of time. Why? Leaders get used to high-energy, quick-paced intense days. Studies show that the body responds to help us cope with this pace by increasing stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. After years or months at a fast pace of life, these stress hormones are unable to suddenly shut off to allow the person to relax on a beach chair at the water’s edge or ensconced in a cabin with several novels. For some, this amounts to absolute torture!

So, how can you ensure you actually take your vacation time?

1/ Realize that the fulfillment you derive from work is best realized through a balanced lifestyle. Taking breaks from work is one way to gain perspective and get the creative juices flowing again. You can plan vacation as a valid part of your work schedule. Planning has the added bonus of alerting your entire team that they will have to step up in your absence.

2/ Set the example! Show those who report to you that you value time off and you want them to value it, too. This means actually taking the time off – not just saying that you value vacation. In other words, walk the talk.

3/ Relax differently. Although you may not be able to “shut off” at the flick of a calendar date, you can actively relax. Most leaders reach their positions, in part, because they are smart and able to learn new things. So, play to that strength and use your vacation to learn new things! Whether you learn to tie flies for fishing, wrangle yourself into the warrior yoga pose, or discover the joys of making your own gnocchi or fine pastries at a culinary school, try something new and create memories. As Bennett explains, “…if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before…”

It is far too easy for some people to brush off the benefits of taking a vacation. Even our cultural view of this time creates roadblocks. For instance, I found this quote: “The alternative to a vacation is to stay home and tip every third person you see” (Author unknown). However, you owe it to yourself, your team, your organization, and perhaps your family. Look at the calendar; it’s the end of July! Remove the roadblocks and schedule your vacation. It beats the alternative!