After “Hot Vax Summer” was interrupted by the dawn of the delta variant, and the winter holidays were overshadowed by omicron, this year’s spring travel season promises to be busier than ever. (BA. 2? Bah.) Americans seem determined to make up for lost vacation time and really get away from it all.
But really getting away from work is a challenge for many U.S. employees. Workplace adviser Alison Green, creator of AskAManager.org, shared on Twitter a comment from a reader who said the only way to keep their office from contacting them on vacation was to lie about camping off the grid. That comment kicked off a thread of workers discussing how they regularly take — or claim to take — vacations where it’s impossible, difficult, or extremely expensive for work to contact them, such as cruise ships and international excursions.
Why lie? some asked. Why not just refuse to answer the phone or respond to emails?
Then came stories of the lengths to which employers have gone to stay in touch: issuing satellite phones; contacting employees’ relatives on social media; and tracking down vacationing workers via bartenders, hotel staff, and (my favorite, if true) a park ranger on a burro in the Grand Canyon.
Why are Americans so bad at this?
Unlike every other industrialized nation, the United States has no mandatory paid vacation or holiday leave. Workers who have paid leave often don’t take it. And even when we take leave, many of us can’t leave work behind. The technology that lets us work anywhere, anytime, makes it hard to disconnect even when we’re supposed to.
That’s bad for us. Burnout is a leading occupational hazard globally. Brigid Schulte has a new podcast series titled “American Karoshi: Moving From a Work Culture of Burnout, Precarity & Stress to a Future of Worker Health & Well-Being in the 21st Century.” Schulte notes that stress and overwork in the labor force is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States.
It’s bad for business, too. A workplace that falls apart when one person is offline is not a functional workplace. An employer that is concerned about quality and productivity doesn’t want decisions being made by someone who is physically and mentally checked-out.
Below are some of the most common obstacles, and solutions, to keeping the O in our PTO:
Work inertia keeps you rolling past quitting time.
You’ve set your out-of-office auto-response email and voice-mail greeting and are just about to sign off — but then a co-worker pings you, like Peter Falk’s Columbo: “Oh — just one more thing….”
So you reply. What’s one more message? But then that reminds you of another thing you meant to do, and then your phone rings … and an hour later, you’re no closer to the exit.
Here’s the dirty little secret: Those boulders you’re pushing won’t stop while you’re on vacation. You need to set up off-ramps to redirect and slow them enough so they don’t come crashing back on you when you return.
At least a week in advance, add a note to your email signature to give a heads-up on your pending absence, and remind colleagues of your limited availability when discussing upcoming deadlines. Start copying the people who will be taking over for you on relevant emails. Turn on your out-of-office message a day or two early as a “last call” warning to others to clear up urgent matters before your work window closes.
No one — including you — respects your boundaries.
Every “quick question” you answer during your time off teaches people they don’t have to take your boundaries seriously.
Your out-of-office auto-responder should state clearly that you will be unavailable after [date], and who the next point of contact is in your absence. If someone insists on “missing” that boundary, forward the messages to your delegate and stay out of it.
You’re afraid you’ll be replaced or resented.
Fear, whether due to a treacherous work environment, jealous co-workers, or your personal insecurity, does not enhance performance. Working or worrying through your R&R will not make you a better teammate, and it will protect your job only until the next time you take a break — or break down. Detach and detox so you can come back refreshed and ready to lighten the load for others.
“No one can handle this but me!”
You might not trust that your projects will be in good hands while you’re gone. Or you may be working with a client who insists on working only with you. It might look like job security, but it’s not doing your employer or your client any favors to not have a backup plan. Even if you’re the only one who can do the job perfectly, you can’t maintain perfection without recharging.
Set your substitutes up to succeed. Even if there’s no time for formal cross-training, document what you’re working on with clear instructions and troubleshooting tips. Discreetly brief your colleagues about a codependent client’s quirks and triggers. They will look capable, your client will be mollified, and you’ll have less to clean up when you get back.
True, some positions come with responsibilities that you can’t just hit “pause” on. Again, the solution comes down to building an environment where people are cross-trained and have some autonomy. Green’s top tip for a director who can’t get the office to stop contacting them during vacations was this: Deputize someone to be your gatekeeper who understands your priorities, will defend your boundaries, and knows how to reach you in a true emergency.
You may feel you’re abandoning your obligations. You’re actually honoring your obligation to lead by example. A leader who never detaches from work sends the message, intended or not, that no one else should either.