My family and I are on vacation in LA this week. There’s a lot of data about how much Americans work during vacation, and the subsequent extrapolation about what those statistics mean for Americans and their relationship to work and leisure. Usually the conclusions are that we work too much, and have an inordinate amount of guilt and stress about both working, and relaxing. Why?
- We fear things will fall apart at the office without us
- We fear things will go smoothly at the office, and people will realize we’re not indispensable
- We feel guilty and stressed because we want to work, when we know we should be relaxing
- We feel guilty and stressed because we want to relax, when we know we should be working
Like being a working mother, it seems no matter which side you’re on, you lose. But I don’t think it has to be like that.
Look at 1 and 2, if you work for a company with more than 10 people in it, that’s a pretty self-centered outlook. Anyone taking a vacation has (hopefully) paved the way for their co-workers to succeed by going over the work that needs to be done, and contacting clients to give them a heads up. It’s unlikely that one person is so crucial to a project, that everything at the office is going to fall apart while they’re gone, and that’s a good thing. The weight of that kind of responsibility is the stuff ulcers are made of. (Yes, I just ended a sentence with a preposition. Sorry Mrs. Watts.) It’s true that if things go smoothly while you’re gone, it means you’re not indispensable, but no one is, and I can pretty much guarantee your coworkers don’t view you in that light, so you weren’t really fooling anyone to begin with. But it’s not necessary to be indispensable to be a valued employee. If a person is good at their job, is a hard worker, and enthusiastic about what they do, they will be missed.
If you’re a freelancer, or you’re working for yourself in some other capacity, of course it’s harder to leave work behind, but by scheduling vacation time between big projects hopefully you can lighten your vacation workload. Notifying clients ahead of time and establishing specific working hours while you’re on vacation also helps.
So am I advocating tossing your Blackberry over your shoulder as you skip down the garden path, and cartoon robins alight on your shoulder? Hardly. I think working vacations can be beneficial. Look at points 3 and 4. It seems to me that much of the guilt and stress we feel is tied up with what we assume other people’s expectations are, not only in regard to work, but also in regard to relaxing.
According to the Families and Work Institute, it takes up to three days to relax when you go on vacation, and longer vacations (seven days or more) are associated with better psychological outcomes than shorter vacations. And of course you can’t read an article on work and vacation without the author touting the Europeans, and what loooong vacations they take. And to that data, I say a big, “So what?” Information like this is analogous to the 80 million books written each year on how to get your kid to sleep through the night. The same way that every kid is different and requires a different amount of sleep, so every person is different and has different leisure requirements. I know women whose lives are a blur, a whirlwind of activity, even their leisure time is often filled with work, and most of them seem pretty happy to me. Could those women benefit from slowing down? I dunno, you’d have to ask them. I’m not cut from that cloth; I’m not happy if I’m always on the go, so I couldn’t say. The point I’m trying to make is, why should some heretofore unknown institution with a pocket-full of grant money dictate how much vacation time we need, or whether we need to leave the laptop behind when we go to the beach?
Let’s face it, thanks to modern technology, our work lives and our personal lives criss-cross over each other like a map of the LA freeways. This can be beneficial or disastrous, depending on how we manage it. As with all things business, I think the best way to handle it is to be very specific in detailing the expectations of all parties involved. What precisely, does your boss want you to accomplish while your away? How often do your boss, coworkers, and clients expect you to check in? How many hours will your family/friends let you work before they want to bean you with the nearest Tiki torch? And last but not least, what do YOU need? How much work can you do on vacation and still relax? How often do you want to check in with the office? Maybe it would be more stressful for you not to know what was going on while you were away. Maybe you need to completely unplug. Be honest with yourself regarding what you really need, because there’s not much point in going on vacation unless you’ll return to the office somewhat refreshed.
No doubt it’s a tough task to satisfy so many people, who are bound to have conflicting expectations. Prioritizing who are the most important people to please may help you decide who’s favored in the compromise, and of course that will depend on the circumstances of your work and home life at the time you take your vacation. Once you’ve mapped out exactly how you’re going to incorporate work into your vacation (or not), hopefully it will give you some clarity, and allow you to be present for whatever you’re doing, instead of pulled in a million different directions. In any case, I lift my margarita glass to you: here’s hoping your next vacation is wonderful, even if you’re working.