It's a well-known fact that Americans work too much and play too little. Too many workers never vacation and are tied to their jobs, feeling like they simply can't get away. This is bad for both the employee and the organization, as burned out, stressed out employees can't give it their all.
Most jobs provide the concept of "vacation days" in some form. While many of us simply laugh and wonder how we could ever get out from under our work to take them, those days are there for a reason. And eventually, you'll find yourself planning a trip with your family, and you'll want to be able to enjoy yourself, recharge, and go back to work refreshed and rejuvenated.
Unfortunately, work can still intervene. In this article, I'll discuss 10 things that can ruin your vacation -- and I'll provide some tips for mitigating those factors. But before I get started, let me say this: Nothing is black and white. In today's workplace, if you expect flexibility from your employer, you'll need to give it, too. So, understanding that you need to know when to choose your battles, let's begin.
1: Getting constant calls from your staff
It could begin the minute you get on the road: Your phone starts to ring. Various members of your staff are calling you on a regular basis looking for answers to questions. This one is easy to fix and requires a simple two-step approach:
- Before you leave for vacation, identify someone trusted from your staff who will be the go-to person for all issues in your absence. That person -- and only that person -- can call you.
- Set strict times during which you will check in and accept calls from the designee. Make sure it's clear that he or she should call you outside those established times only if the building is on fire.
The hard part can be enforcing this one. It won't work unless you stick to the agreement to answer the phone only when your designated person calls.
2: Getting constant calls from your boss
This one is a little trickier to handle but can be handled in a similar way as the item above. Again, identify a trusted person whom your boss can approach in your absence. Ask your boss to first attempt to work with this person before calling you on vacation. Obviously, your boss might still call you directly, but at least make an attempt to set up a chain of command.
Further, before you leave on vacation, have a short meeting to bring your boss up to speed on anything that might be outstanding or that might pop up while you're gone. Avoid letting your boss be surprised by something in your absence, and your vacation may be much smoother!
3: Having to carry your laptop everywhere you go
So you've ignored the first two pieces of advice or you simply can't make it work, and now you have to carry your laptop with you everywhere you go just in case you get a call. Instead of doing that, work with your boss and your staff to set up a schedule for when you'll check in each day and then follow that schedule. Leave the laptop behind and check in only at the agreed-upon time. If you're called at another time, explain that your laptop is not currently available and then call the office back during the negotiated window.
Again, if it's a massive emergency that only you can handle, you might be driving back to get your laptop. But if you carry it everywhere you go, that's a surefire way to work when you're not supposed to be working.
4: Having to handle minor routine tasks
Document, document, document. Documentation is often considered a "would be nice if" activity, but skipping the documentation step makes it that much harder for someone else in the department to be able to lend a hand -- which, in turn, makes it that much harder for you to have a peaceful vacation. The more tasks you document and the more thorough your documentation, the more likely it is that you'll be able to get away without getting constant requests for assistance with what should be minor tasks.
Obviously, you can't commit your entire knowledge base to paper, so you may not be able to get 100 percent of your tasks written down. Just do the best you can, both for yourself and for your team.
5: Returning to a slew of email messages and voice mail calls
This one is tough and for many people, there will simply be no way around it. After vacation, you're going to return to an inbox overflowing with unread messages and a phone with a blinking LED telling you that you have voicemail. But you might be able to come back to the office to some semblance of peace.
If you have an assistant, you're golden; ask your assistant to take your calls and, for pressing matters, to forward the calls to the person you designated as in charge during your absence. Lacking an assistant, ask a trusted colleague to do the same and even consider forwarding your phone line to another staff person so that your keep voicemail to a minimum. (I hate voicemail.)
For email, make liberal use of the out-of-office capabilities of your mail system so that senders are aware that you won't be back in the office for a while. Also, again consider requesting the services of an assistant or a trusted colleague to check your mail once or twice a day and to flag anything that might be high priority.
Lacking that... while you're on vacation, disable automatic delivery of email to your smartphone! That's rule number one. As above, specify times that you will check your mail and then do so, but only during those times. If you allow email to make its way to your smartphone the whole time you're on vacation, you'll come back to work more stressed than when you left.
6: Not being able to take a vacation in the first place
A whole lot of people are overworked to the point that they don't think they can get away from the office for a vacation, even when they want nothing more than to take a break. As hard as it may be, you have to find a way. Those who never take vacations (or at least get away) will burn out, develop health issues, and even worse.
Even if you're a small department, find a consultant or a coworker who can keep things running so that you can get away. Frankly, if you're so busy that you can never get away and can't convince your boss to fund a consultant for a short period of time or assign a trusted coworker to help, it's time to move on to an organization that will make sure that you can take care of your mental and physical health.
7: Being forced to schedule conference calls while on vacation
This one requires planning in advance. How many of you respond to constant calendar and meeting requests sent by people who need you at a meeting? Probably a lot. One way to help ensure that you minimize conference calls while you're on vacation is to add your vacation to your calendar so that people attempting to schedule meetings can see that you're not available. If you wait too long to add vacation time to your calendar, you might be roped into something you don't want to do while you're away.
Otherwise, follow the same rules as above. Specify times when you'll be available and stick to that schedule as best you can. Obviously, if your boss calls and tells you to be in a meeting, be there -- but try to control your schedule while you're on vacation.
8: Having to cancel your vacation
This is the worst and I've seen it happen. Most often it occurs because a project goes off the rails or because something unexpected arises at work, but I've also seen it happen because employees didn't talk to their supervisor before making grand vacation plans. Upon hearing about the plans, the supervisor is left to deliver the bad news to the employee that the time off can't be approved because it interferes with a significant project that's been on the docket for ages.
To prevent this from happening to you, if your organization has a vacation time request policy, use it. Otherwise, put your request in writing or make it via email and clearly outline the dates. If you know a project is going to get in the way, either choose different dates or explain to your boss how you will mitigate the project. Don't leave the legwork up to your boss. That's a surefire way for the request to be denied or to just get on his or her bad side.
And when you request time off, be respectful of the people around you so that you're not leaving them a lurch.
9: Worrying about losing your job because you're not in the office
I've had people tell me that they're actually afraid to take vacations because they think their employer will think they're lazy and will fire them because they're not pulling their weight. After all, everyone else is constantly working, so why should one person get a break?
I also worked for someone who used to get upset when people took vacations because they weren't at his beck and call while they were away. He had to be constantly reminded that the organization provided employees with this time for a reason and that he didn't think twice about getting away from the office when he went on vacations.
Sometimes, it takes being that frank.
If you're on vacation and worried, establish your check in times and make sure that your boss knows you're checking in daily. At the very least, your boss will know that you're remaining engaged with the business while you're away.
10: Not getting the most of your vacation
If you can heed all these points, you'll get the most out of your vacation. While you're there, read something for fun, enjoy time with your family, and... get away from it all. Even if the pressures of work return after you get back to the office, enjoy a stress-free week or two on an island, in the mountains, or just at home playing with the kids. If you must remain in touch with the office, keep it to a minimum. Don't allow yourself to be pulled into anything that doesn't absolutely require your attention and keep the email checking to a minimum.
If you've discovered some additional strategies for keeping your work and job concerns at bay while you take some time off, share your tips with fellow TechRepublic members.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.