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Take Time Off!

Under-used leave entitlements are not a healthy sign. If we have a staff member who is ‘too busy’ (or ‘too indispensable’) to take a regular vacation, it’s not a signal that they are a hard-working team member who’s dedicated to their work and the best interests of our organisation. In fact…


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This Pivot: Why using our full leave entitlement is good for us and the organisation we work for.

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Under-used leave entitlements are not a healthy sign.

If we have a staff member who is ‘too busy’ (or ‘too indispensable’) to take a regular vacation, it’s not a signal that they are a hard-working team member who’s dedicated to their work and the best interests of our organisation. In fact, it can be argued it means quite the opposite.

It’s not a sign of a healthy management approach on our part, either.

Work Martyrs

“You’ll actually get worse at your job if you don’t have intervals of rest amid the stress. It’s like working one muscle too hard. If you neglect to rest that muscle, it begins to fatigue and will ultimately weaken.” - Scott Edinger - founder of the Edinger Consulting Group.

‘Work martyrs’ (especially those at the top of our organisation) do double-damage. Despite what might be their good intentions, they don’t end up delivering what they are capable of, and they signal to other staff that this kind of sacrifice is somehow praiseworthy and worth emulating.

Even more so if it’s the leader doing the signalling.

There are five likely reasons why a staff member would leave leave on the table:

  • They feel an emotional need to be critical to an organisation’s operation.
  • They have a belief that no one can do the job as well as they can.
  • They are so disorganised/overworked that they can’t clear enough space to get away, or there will be catastrophic consequences if they do.
  • They believe it’s the obligatory path to advancement (or the opposite, they’re frightened it might negatively affect their employment if they don’t).
  • They worry they will not be missed!

We shouldn’t misinterpret any of these as healthy for either the individual or the organisation.

Work martyrs also put a kind of subtle pressure on those taking their full leave entitlement. Vacationing staff can feel they are somehow not team players, or not dedicated or important enough if they take their leave. There’s plenty of evidence, backed up by research, that our brain’s performance degrades significantly when we ask it to keep working without the opportunity to mentally recharge. Everybody needs time off, and it’s the work martyrs who aren’t getting it.

Overworked employees are also:

“…prone to mood swings, impulsive decision-making, and poor concentration. They’re more likely to lash out at perceived slights and struggle to empathise with colleagues. Worse still, they are prone to negativity…” - HBR

Vacations Matter

Even a superficial review of research will highlight that people returning from vacation generally have:

  • Higher productivity and performance
  • Improved mental and physical health
  • Decreased feelings of burnout

Well rested employees are simply better employees. They make better decisions, they look upon their jobs more positively and they do better work. Most importantly, they show their best faces and attitudes to other staff and clients.

“After a few days on vacation — and it usually took two to three — people were averaging an hour more of good quality sleep. And there was an 80 percent improvement in their reaction times.” – New York Times

“… studies show that [a] vacation is good for your cardiovascular health and your waistline, lowers your cortisol levels and your blood pressure, and may aid in recovery from diseases like cancer.” – Psychology Today

The benefits may peak after about eight days away and they may not last long (some research indicates only 3-4 weeks); both of which suggest multiple short breaks might be better than one long annual vacation.

There’s another big benefit too.

Having key staff regularly take time off ‘stress tests’ our organisation. Remaining staff get the opportunity to step up and enhance their skill sets (and boost their job satisfaction). At the same time, our organisation is regularly rehearsing covering for staff in the event of a sudden departure.

There’s one less obvious benefit too. A tell-tale sign of fraud is when a staff member won’t take time off, because they don’t want to risk anyone else discovering their wrongdoing. Having an enforced vacation policy is a good safeguard against crooks. (Having a ‘use it or lose it’ policy is probably not sufficient – people still leave a massive amount of vacation time unclaimed.)

The recognition that vacations are so valuable is why many businesses are coming up with unusual ways to try to ensure staff do take their time off.

  • Adobe, Netflix and Twitter allow their staff to take unlimited vacations whenever they want, although it is questionable if this is really a good solution. Mathias Meyer, the CEO of German tech company Travis CI, wrote a blog post about his company abandoning its unlimited vacation policy: “When people are uncertain about how many days it’s okay to take off, you’ll see curious things happen. People will hesitate to take a vacation as they don’t want to seem like that person who’s taking the most vacation days. It’s a race to the bottom instead of a race towards a well-rested and happy team”.
  • Motley Fool’s approach (humorously called “The Fool’s Errand”) has their leadership drawing a name at random each month. That person gets two weeks paid time off, with a catch: It must be taken in the next month.
  • Some companies offer sabbaticals and ‘career breaks’ to long standing staff members. The organisation benefits from an employee returning with new skills, such as a new language or a professional qualification, and the employee is likely to have a renewed and refreshed attitude to work. On the flip side, the organisation gets to bring in new faces (with new ideas) and to really prove it can cover for the vacationing individual.
  • Some organisations even make taking leave compulsory.

Whatever approach our organisation takes, it falls to its leader to enforce it and ensure staff are taking regular, restorative time off.

Not All Vacations Are the Same

According to this article, it’s not just a matter of getting away from work. There are four vacation qualities that make for effective recovery from work stress: relaxation, control, mastery experiences and mental detachment from work.

  • Relaxation: being able to engage in an activity that’s pleasant and undemanding. Our activities don’t have to be totally passive, but they shouldn’t feel like work or require much effort.
  • Control: being able to decide what we spend our time, energy and attention on. We often don’t have much control over what happens at work, and our out of work time can be filled with family duties and chores. Being able to control our time on our breaks can feel great!
  • Mastery Experiences: being able to undertake absorbing, interesting things that we do well. Completing challenging activities on vacation is rewarding when we accomplish them.
  • Mental Detachment: being able to escape work-related interruptions and get completely away. (Employees who carry their work smartphones or other devices during vacation show “higher levels of stress and work-family conflict” – which is no surprise to anyone!)

Poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the positive benefit of taking time off.

Setting an Example

It’s a team leader’s responsibility to model regular time off, both in the interests of their staff and their organisation. It’s a little more difficult for the leader, but that makes it an even more powerful message.

Here are six suggestions on how we can organise (and model) our own time off.

  1. Plan ahead: We make sure that everyone who needs to know, has been told we are going to be away. We pause our projects or hand them over to someone else.
  2. Define ‘emergency’: We set out exactly what situations warrant the centre contacting us while we are away (the centre burning down for example).
  3. Empower our team: We let our team know what responsibilities they need to shoulder in our absence. That clears our plate a little when we come back to work, but also tells our staff that we trust them.
  4. Give our self permission to check in: If we become too anxious about work we will lose the benefits of being away. Our goal is to separate our self, but if a quick scan of messages puts our mind at rest, then we can get back to relaxing.
  5. Leave projects behind: Taking work on holiday to finish off or read is a bad idea. We usually won’t get it done, and then we return to work feeling bad for the omission. The full benefit of a vacation comes from detaching.
  6. Manage re-entry: We should plan how we are going to ease back in to work. Diving right back in can quickly burn away the benefits of the time away. A smart idea is to not schedule anything for the first day, and even stay home for the morning to catch up on emails, messages and phone calls.
  7. Savour the memories: It’s a good idea to bring part of our holiday back with us. If we make a point to look at our photos and souvenirs regularly and savour the memories, we extend the positive benefits of our time off (and we’ll remember it for longer too).

Food for Thought…

  • Underused vacation time is not a healthy sign - or a sign of good management practice.
  • Work martyrs are not only underperforming, they’re sending the wrong messages to others
  • Regular time off will improve productivity and performance, mental and physical health, and decrease burnout.
  • It’s a manager’s responsibility to ensure (and model) the regular taking of time off.
  • We can maximise the benefits of our time away if we plan both our holiday, and our departure and return to work.

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