Vacation/Work Quandary Part 2: Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?

Because of the response I received to the posting about my personal struggle not work during July vacation, I decided to analyze recent research findings and commentary related to the vacation+work quandary to see if I could find common themes and solutions. And, as I suspected, in many ways, we are indeed our own worst enemy when it comes to vacation, or the lack thereof. What can we do about it? Plenty…we need to:

• Realize there are two separate issues—people who don’t take vacation and people who work while on vacation
• Change your definition of success that keeps you from taking vacation
• Challenge fears about taking vacation—are they real?
• Consciously determine how much work you will do before starting vacation
• Manage technology, don’t let it manage you
• Realize your company and the government can only do so much

Realize there are two separate issues:

• Issue #1: People who don’t take vacation, and
• Issue #2: People who take vacation but work while they are on it.

Solutions to Address Issue #1: People who don’t take vacation

Change your personal definition of success that keeps you from taking vacation, because only 61% of us use our allocated vacation.

Below are some of the reasons cited in a NYTimes article and a recent Steelcase Workplace Index Survey as to why we don’t take vacation. As you read through them, you can see how the pressure we put on ourselves—our personal definition of success—can make us our own worst enemy when it comes to vacation:

• I’m committed to my job
• I can’t relax until things are taken care of
• Ambitious people are reluctant to ask a colleague for help
• It makes competitive people feel indispensable, “Feeling overworked is a red badge of courage,” says Ellen Galinsky of Families and Work Institute
• Lofty expectations about vacation don’t match the reality of vacation

While I agree that companies need to do their part and not actively discourage us from taking the vacation we’ve been allocated, we as individuals are the only ones who can:

• Challenge our work ethic if it causes us not to take vacation
• Redefine what “committed” to our job means if it doesn’t include vacation
• Determine when things are “taken care of” in a 24/7 work world
• Team up and offer mutual support so that we can all go on vacation more easily
• Challenge our need to feel indispensable
• Manage our expectations about vacation so we aren’t disappointed

Challenge the fear that says, “If I take a vacation, I’ll lose my job”: Not taking vacation for fear of losing your job was one of the primary reasons cited in two recent articles regarding the work/vacation quandary (NYTimes) and (Christian Science Monitor). The data cited to support this fear is from an FWI study that found only 36% of employees feel secure in their jobs, versus 45% in 1977.

Now, if you are one of the 25% of employees who don’t get any paid vacation (BLS), I can see why you might fear being fired if you took vacation, but what about those people who have vacation allocated by their employer but don’t take it?

I can’t help but wonder if, as with so many other work+life related fears (the “what ifs” and the “yes, buts”), they are letting a baseless assumption, keep them from using their time off. Are they really going to lose their job for taking vacation?

We have to ask ourselves, “Has anyone actually been fired for taking vacation?” If the answer is no, then we need to plan some time off. If it’s yes, then we need to probe further. Was the person who was seemingly fired for taking vacation was a performance problem in other areas? Chances are they were.

Plus, if your company is struggling to the point that you could get fired for taking a vacation, then should you still be working there? Interesting question.

Solutions to Address Issue #2: People who work while they are on vacation

Assuming you take a vacation, then you need to decide how much work is appropriate before you go and then try to stick to it: A manager is a financial services firm once said to me, “I love working on vacation—it gives me a break from the kids, and I get a jump on my emails.” It seems he is not alone. In fact, 55% of men and 43% of women brought work on vacation (up from 26% and 18% respectively in 1995) (Steelcase).

Are they right or are they wrong to work on vacation? It really depends upon the person—is it a positive experience, or a negative experience—given their particular realities. Here are some of the reasons cited in a recent Steelcase study for working over vacation:
• Pressing assignment
• Don’t want to leave it all for when I get back
• Catch up on paperwork
• Put out any fires

Bottomline: However much you decide to work over vacation, just be conscious about it. During my July vacation, I really didn’t want to work much at all because my mother who has been very ill was with us and I wanted to be with her as much as possible. Recently, I took a long weekend vacation, and decided to check emails and voicemails throughout which was fine too. But you have to decide in advance what those boundaries will be.

You have to manage technology and not allow technology to manage you: Clearly, advances in technology are fueling the increase in work during vacation. One of the top five reasons for working during vacation was “Technology makes it easy.” (Steelcase) And 80% of employees used technology to work during vacation.

Interestingly, the most important technology for working was the laptop, followed by the cellphone, the PC and, coming in fourth, the Blackberry. Considering how much we hear about the “Crackberry” I was surprised it was listed as the fourth. So the moral of the story may be limit the access to your laptop and cellphone so you don’t go beyond that predetermined amount of work.

Short of forcing you to take vacation, your company and the government can only do so much:

The article in the Christian Science Monitor suggested “Congress must make all companies offer four weeks of paid vacation.” That is fine in theory, but that doesn’t deal with the reality (Issue #1) that people who have vacation still don’t take it for all of the reasons listed above.

Another article in the New York Times showcased a program at Price Waterhouse Coopers where they shut down the entire company for 10 days over Christmas and 5 days during Fourth of July to ensure that everyone takes vacation. While that’s an interesting idea, I’m not sure how many companies could afford to shut down their entire operation for that long twice a year. It also assumes that Christmas and Fourth of July are the optimal times for everyone to take vacation. For example, some people may prefer their child’s Spring Break.

A PWC partner explained that the reason the firm decided to do this is, “So that people don’t feel bad about missing meetings, and responding to 200 emails.” Doesn’t that take us back to where we started—redefining success, and managing technology? Wouldn’t it be easier if we all stepped back, considered the unnecessary pressure we put on ourselves and then:

#1: Took the vacation allotted to us at a time that works for us personally and for the business
#2: Once we took that vacation, consciously decided beforehand how much work we would do, then manage technology so that the work doesn’t “creep” beyond those predetermined goals.