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Are We Becoming a “No-Vacation Nation”?

Posted by Dr. Shelli Jackson on 06/14/2016
All work and no play these days?  If so, you’re not alone.  Research indicates that Americans are taking less vacation time and putting in more time on the job than in the past.  According to Project: Time off (an initiative of the U.S. Travel Association), working Americans now take almost a week less of vacation than they did in 2000.  What’s more is that 42% of those who participated in the 2014 poll indicated that they had not taken off a single day from work in the past year. 
Before the year 2000, the use of vacation time in the U.S. was relatively stable.  So, why was there a shift beginning in 2000?  There are probably multiple contributors, but it seems likely that one is the smartphone.  It was introduced at around the same time that the decline began—the BlackBerry was introduced in 1999 and then the iPhone in 2007.  Today, two-thirds of adult Americans own one. While greater connectivity has many benefits, one of the consequences is that it is challenging to disengage from work.  Keeping these devices within arms’ reach also keeps us tied to the office. 
Now I’ll be one of the first to admit that I LOVE my iPhone.  But unless I am intentional about setting boundaries for myself, I can work 24/7.  Even when I take time off from work for a vacation, I find it difficult to truly disconnect from the office.  I feel the pull to briefly read and respond to emails or to make a quick call to a colleague.  I justify that it will only take a few minutes for me to respond to a co-worker’s question so that I can avoid holding up their progress while I am out of the office.  Ultimately, I convince myself that these intermittent moments of work make it easier and better for everyone, including me.  But it is healthy for me to be so tied to my work that I’ll end up composing emails in my swimsuit and flip-flops from the beach?  What indirect message does it send to my family?  What are the costs to my psychological health?  What expectation does it imply to my direct reports about our work culture? 
Research has clearly established that vacations have real benefits for us both personally and professionally.  Back on the job, it contributes to the prevention of burnout; improves engagement and productivity; and increases creativity.  The restorative experiences that we have on vacation also foster greater life satisfaction, improve attention and concentration, lift our moods, enable us to gain fresh perspectives and foster new insight.  By disengaging from the stress of work and daily life, we replenish our mental and physical energy and fulfill our basic human needs for recreation, relaxation, and relationships. 
So, as I prepare to take a family trip to the beach next month, I commit to intentionally unplug while on this vacation and to put plans in place in advance so that I will be successful in doing so.  My goal is to return from vacation with no regrets, renewed motivation and energy, a fresh perspective and a lot of great memories to carry forward. 
In preparing for my trip, I came across some helpful suggestions by Robert Half Management Resources (2014).   They suggest that you ensure colleagues and direct reports are prepared in advance to work effectively in your absence by doing the following:
  1.  Choose the right timing—Do not plan to take your vacation during a major transition period at work, and ensure that your trip falls at a time when plenty of others will be in the office.  Consider checking your team’s calendars in advance when planning vacations.
  2. Assign someone to be in charge—Choose someone whom you trust to lead your team while you are away.  They will be in charge of fulfilling day-to-day responsibilities and also debrief you on everything you missed when you return.
  3. Touch base on all ongoing projects before you leave—Reach out to your colleagues before leaving to let them know how long you will be gone and to provide them an opportunity to ask questions while you are still in the office. 
  4. Let technology work for you—Avoid the dread of returning to the office to an email inbox that is overflowing by utilizing tech tools to ease your return.  Schedule out-of-office auto replies so that people know not to include you in unnecessary email chains. Set up temporary email filters to ensure that you come back to only the most important messages.
Of course, self-discipline also plays a crucial role in determining the success or failure of a plan to unplug.  The best laid plans are worthless if the implementation is faulty.  So, in addition to utilizing these steps, I will also make a self-management plan for my use of handheld devices during vacation in order to draw a clear line between work and personal use.  This includes taking steps such as turning off notifications so that I will not receive calendar reminders or be alerted each time a new email arrives to my inbox.  For more ideas, consider reading an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “The Right Way to Unplug When You’re on Vacation.” (https://hbr.org/2014/07/the-right-way-to-unplug-when-youre-on-vacation).    
Work-life balance is a core value of ours here at Impact, and I urge you to support this value in your own workplace through both your words and by example.  Give yourself and others the permission to take time off and leave work behind on vacation.  We need it for our personal health and we reap benefits back at the office for having done so.
What are the most challenging aspects for you of unplugging on vacation?  How do you manage them?  Will you do anything differently this year?
Key words: work-life balance, stress management, vacation, unplugging, smartphones

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