Founder of Regenerate, a training firm focused on sustainable performance for high-pressure career professionals and fast-paced companies.
Unless you have unlimited PTO, all unused vacation days serve as a pay cut. The irony is that this particular “unlimited” benefit is mostly masked as a competitive recruiting strategy, yet in many cases can put employees at a disadvantage. Unlimited PTO policies can initiate “fear of use.” Thirty-three percent of Americans’ vacation time went unused in 2020, accounting for an estimated cost of $65.5 billion in lost benefits.
There has been a long-term downward trend of vacation time use since the turn of the century and it is unsurprising. It has coincided with the breakdown of work/life boundaries through the advent of enhanced technologies, a culture of overwork and increased expectations, along with a considerable amount of job stress and insecurity.
The untold story, however, is how much we are working while on vacation. Amid mounting demands and a fear of not falling behind, 66% of workers said they engaged in work activities while taking time off and the average employee reported taking just over half (54%) of their allotted vacation time. Reasons for working on vacation are varied and more easily justified in today’s remote work era:
• Workload growing while on vacation
• Not wanting to return to a mountain of emails
• Fear of missing out
• Lack of trust/fear in delegating important tasks
• Need to feel needed/valued
• Responsiveness reflex
• Dopamine rush of possible good news (accomplishment, a new deal, new client, etc.)
• Work is always an arm’s length away
While new ways of working are welcome in many ways, they also slowly bleed us dry until we have no separation between work and the necessary disconnection from work. Covid-19, of course, has even further blurred the lines between workdays and holidays.
The actual doing part of prepping and organizing around time off is quite simple. The mindset to unlock our ability to recover and replenish is the most difficult part. Our mind has a way of gnawing at our greatest fears and insecurities related to our work drive (need for competence, feeling valued, feeling trusted, not letting others down, moving faster/doing it better than others, etc.). It can present deep-seated obstacles to accessing the energy recovery we need for personal sustainability and ironically, work and life effectiveness.
Optimize your pre-vacation work time. My realization moment as an ambitious achiever was first to recognize that regular and intentional rest is the most reliable way to influence a consistent performance state. We need to intentionally plug into rest, taking time off to find joy, reconnect to ourselves, reflect, restore homeostasis and assimilate all of work’s pressures and demands, if we want to return to work more poised, refreshed and focused. Put simply, if the vacation is interspersed with work rather than compartmentalized, then renewal doesn’t happen and there’s a greater likelihood of burnout.
While building awareness around your psychological barrier may be sufficient for you to overcome it, here are five simple and practical steps to increase joy and presence during your time away and set the stage for a more renewing and energizing out-of-office experience.
1. Two weeks before your travel, add an email signature that notes your upcoming vacation dates. This way, people you’re corresponding with have a heads-up that you’ll be unavailable.
2. Anticipate emergent needs and discuss what constitutes emergent — clear, present and urgent — with your team (likely very few things will hit that are truly time-sensitive). Identify no more than three trusted colleagues and inform them how to respond on your behalf. This is a great way to delegate, avoid micromanagement and help others grow, all while allowing you to rest.
3. Set up your auto-reply and be clear about who to contact and under what circumstances. Don’t just list departments. List the actual project or subject matter.
4. Stop yourself from constant email checking by disabling push notifications or creating a VIP filter for only those people who should be able to disturb you from the rare time you’re not working.
5. Schedule a re-entry day. If possible, put the date you’re coming back as one day after you actually return, so you can have a full day to simply go through emails and to prioritize your work for the week. I’ve tried a half-day on this and trust me, you’ll want to use the full day. And by the way, that re-entry day should be a true workday, not a final day of your vacation that you’re sacrificing to get work under control.
Recapture your vacation. Rest, renew and come back to work refreshed and poised for the steady stream and high volume of work. It will still be there for you.