Here’s the good news: Americans, as a whole, are finally starting to earn more and take more paid time off.
According to a study by Project: Time Off, American workers took an average of 16.8 vacation days in 2016, up 0.6 days from 2015. That’s the biggest jump since vacation usage started declining in 2000, the study found. And the amount of vacation time earned in 2016 jumped nearly one full day—to 22.6—from the year before.
Perhaps we’re finally buying into what we’ve heard studies tell us time and again: Time off makes us better. Better at our jobs because we’re reenergized, better with our families because we’re less stressed, and better for ourselves because we’re healthier, both physically and mentally.
Vacation actually has similar positive biological effects as meditation, including a decrease in stress and a boost to our immune functions, according to a study from researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; the University of California, San Francisco; and Harvard Medical School.
The problem is, while many of us are using paid time off, we’re not using it to its fullest potential. Culture, technology, and poor personal habits encourage us to stay plugged in. So does fear — fear people won’t think we’re committed, fear we’ll be seen as non-critical to the mission, fear our teammates will let us down. All of this can make taking time off stressful, when it should be restorative.
If we want to truly disconnect from everyday pressures and reap the positive benefits of a holiday we need to commit to setting three helpful boundaries.
1. Fib on your out-of-office message. Even if you plan to occasionally check in, tell people you will have limited email access and to expect a reply on, or shortly after, your return.
I had one client embarking on her first vacation in years, but going off the grid completely wasn’t an option. She told me she was planning to check her email “only” twice a day.
Telling people she was reachable, however, would only invite them to contact her — and expect a reply. So she made sure her out-of-office let everyone know she’d have limited email access and when to expect a response.
With this in mind, she set up a schedule for herself. After some encouragement, she decided to check her email once mid-week and once at the tail end of her vacation. This allowed her to respond to urgent messages but still feel comfortable leaving the others for her return. Her out-of-office gave her the freedom to choose how and when she’d respond while on vacation. If done right, it can do the same for you.
2. Designate a concealed place for your technology. One of my client’s fears directly related to the email notifications she could see on her phone: reminders of all those tasks and to-do’s she was missing at work. But if she didn’t have her phone at all, that wouldn’t be a problem. After all, there are countless camps and retreats popping up around the country, with great success, offering the possibility of a screen-free getaway. They require attendees turn over all digital devices when they arrive, allowing for a more meaningful, in-the-moment experience.
Maybe you don’t need — or don’t want — your device taken from you, but a similar result might be achieved if you find a designated space, like a hotel safe, to store it. Keep it out of sight, so you aren’t quite as inclined to reach for it, and then set up (and keep to) a schedule of when you’ll check in. Perhaps you’ll find yourself establishing a healthier “tech/body balance.”
3. Ask your direct reports for a recap. It can be a challenge — and a bit of a rude awakening — to return from vacation and get a handle on all you’ve missed. Maybe that’s why, according to research published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, we tend to experience more happiness before our trip rather than after. Simply reading through and responding to each individual email received in your absence could take hours, even days, and presents a threat to some needed prioritization.
You can combat the post-holiday blues by first focusing on the need-to-know info. Ask your direct reports to send you a briefing the day before your return with a bulleted list, including the most important info gathered while you were gone — their progress on assigned projects, new or urgent requests from clients, etc. These recaps not only arm you with the intelligence you need as you transition back into your routine, but they let your team know you trust them to manage and execute while you’re away. You can focus first on these recaps, knowing it’s what your team wants you to know, now.
These three simple barriers make the transition to, through, and from vacation a bit more manageable for those who struggle to truly embrace their paid time off. By crafting a strategic auto reply, designating an out-of-sight space for your phone, and empowering your team to bring you up to speed, you can make the most of your time away from the office —and reap the benefits that time will bring.
Regan Walsh is an NYU-certified Executive and Life Coach who helps seasoned and emerging leaders thrive in work and life. She’s worked with successful clients from New York to Portland and proudly calls Columbus, Ohio, home. For more information, visit www.reganwalsh.com.
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