Q. My extended family scheduled a reunion this summer, and I’ve planned to take the week afterward for vacation. I’ll be gone at least two weeks. I feel like I should check in regularly with the office for any questions on our projects, but my boss suggested that I leave the laptop and cell phone in my desk. Is that really a good idea in a competitive workplace?
A. If you want to be competitive with your co-workers, take that two-week vacation without packing the laptop, the cell phone or your Blackberry device full of schedules and deadline dates. If you can disconnect from the demands of work and recharge your mind and body, you’re likely to come back with more curiosity, creativity and optimism than those who never take a break.
Numerous experts offer this type of advice to American workers. But we’re still lousy at getting away. We’re work junkies, addicted to the notion that our daily presence keeps the company’s pulse beating steadily.
U.S. employees gave back roughly 415 million vacation days to their companies in 2004, according to a survey by travel site Expedia.com. On average, workers lost three days of earned vacation time by not using up their allocated days off. – up from two days in 2003.
Those of us in the West are the worst. Fifty-six percent of us work more than 40 hours per week; 27 percent surrender more than a week of vacation each year.
The average number of U.S. vacation days last year was 12.4, according to Expedia’s survey. The 2005 results are due out next month.
When workers do schedule time off, nearly one third sabotage the goal by turning it into a working vacation; 32 percent say they check e-mail or office voice mail while “away.”
Some bosses encourage people to take vacations, but workers come up with reasons not to go: too much work to do; too hard to get away, too expensive; might miss out on a big opportunity.
In another survey, office-products company Quill (www.quill.com) found that 60 percent of respondents had canceled, postponed or shortened a vacation because of a heavy workload.
For those who do get away, one in four said they quit thinking about work the moment they leave. But 60 percent said it takes until Day 3 to disengage. One in four needs a week, or never stops thinking about work.
With the major vacation season around the corner, it’s time for some insight on why vacations are so important and how we can allow them to serve their purpose.
Go: Heal yourself
Begin with the premise that vacations – periods of rest away from the job – are vital to optimal performance. The hardware known as the human body will not function efficiently without adequate time to rejuvenate.
Watch how high-level athletes train. They alternate workout days to allow muscles to heal and rebuild, and they actually taper back on hard work as they get close to the competition – the time they want to be at peak performance.
Al Siebert, a trainer who travels the world teaching executives how to build resiliency, says: “An optimal plan has you alternating the strains of intense work with periods of detachment, rest, and relaxation. Alternating strain with relaxation sustains your health and increases strength.”
Siebert wrote a career guide, “The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure, and Bounce Back from Setbacks.” He says a vacation should be filled with lots of naps, a limited schedule of activities and opportunities for connecting with loved ones. Those help build “optimal health.”
“Optimal health is what you enjoy when you live in ways that allow your body time to repair and heal,” he said.
That means a vacation should not be a hectic rush to cram in as much as possible. Take a hike if that’s invigorating, but then get a massage and read for pleasure.
Go: With discipline
Workplace expert Kathleen Hall approaches vacations from a holistic approach. She incorporates spiritual and emotional renewal into her guide, a book entitled, “Alter Your Life: Overbooked? Overworked? Overwhelmed?” (Oak Haven, $15.95).
She advises against taking the laptop and, if you must bring your cell phone, schedule only one hour a day to return calls. Use that limited time to tell clients or colleagues that you’re on vacation, but you’ll address their concerns when you return.
“At some point, you have to schedule to be disconnected,” Hall said. “It doesn’t come out of your heart or mind. It’s a discipline.
“You are like an engine with all the working parts, but leisure is your fuel for that engine. If you don’t play and rest, the engine will blow up or stop.”
She points to research that shows people who are stressed tend to be more aggressive, more pessimistic and more anxious at work. Many of them report that they feel fine, but they have been in the high-stress mode for so long that they can’t tell the difference.
“Over time, there are health consequences, including hypertension, migraine headaches and taking drugs as an antidepressant,” Hall said. “All these hurt a company’s bottom line.”
Taking time to rest and play is not a luxury, she insisted.
“Time off gives us a chance to evaluate our work,” Hall said. “Look at all the great leaders. They know how to go from active to reflective mode so they can look at their staff, their business, their life.”
Go: Without guilt
Joe Robinson finds it odd that people aren’t taking more time to get away. It’s even stranger that bosses don’t encourage it. It could be the best formula for a productive, upbeat workforce, says the author of “Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life” (www.worktolive.info).
The Expedia survey shows that 65 percent of workers who leave work behind feel rested when they return from vacation, and 52 feel better about their job.
“It seems as if many (Americans) aren’t exploring anything but their offices,” Robinson said. “Our lack of vacationing as a nation has far-reaching implications both economically and socially, and could potentially put the well-being of millions of Americans at risk.”
VACATIONS from work needed to recharge mind and body