When it comes to taking a break from work, we are often our own worst enemies. While our increasingly fast-paced, competitive and technology-addicted workplaces make it hard to get downtime in the first place, once we do manage to get away, we don’t fully disconnect during our well-earned holiday. And that defeats the whole purpose of a vacation.
We refuse to unplug our technology, we take work with us or we recreate our jam-packed work environments through the manic pursuit of leisure activities.
The reasons people struggle to take a real break are varied —some are anxious about leaving the office behind for fear a disaster could occur in their absence, while others find extended time with family excruciating. Others can’t get into holiday mode because they’re addicted to a frantic work pace.
Taking a real break means downing tools completely. It means doing nothing of consequence, stopping completely for a period, and planning not to plan. Taking a day, or better yet, at least a week to stop striving, producing, setting goals, or meeting deadlines is essential to well-being. And research shows it increases future performance.
However, there are four types of workers who have trouble taking even the smallest a break:
1. The Indispensable Hero
This type of worker believes the office will literally fall apart in his or her absence. The Hero keeps the BlackBerry, cellphone, e-mail and laptop fired up, terrified to completely “unplug” even for a day. That behaviour sends the message to colleagues and subordinates that the Hero is accessible, amenable to being disturbed, and that his or her holiday is not sacred. Instead of relying on the team to hold things together, the Hero undermines staff autonomy and initiative by implying: “You really aren’t able to keep it together when I’m gone.”
Easing the Indispensable Hero into a total break takes preparation. Together with colleagues and staff, the Hero can prepare for all the possible “disasters” that could occur during the absence. Battle plans for each scenario can be devised so that the break can be relatively risk free. Hero’s sometimes lack trust in staff to be diligent when the Hero is away. But the reality is, if staff know what they need to accomplish, they’ll focus on their tasks in the Hero’s absence. If they don’t, those who take advantage of another’s absence will be easy to spot.
2. The Family Avoider
These folks would rather have their teeth pulled than spend time with the spouse and kids. Troublesome family issues make work an ideal refuge. Family avoiders are terrified of spending “quality time” with family members. Yelling, demanding kids, bored teenagers, unfinished business with a spouse or difficulties with in- laws inspire the Avoider to come up with a work-related excuse to withdraw. Unfortunately, these types of workers need a break too.
And, in some cases they may have to confront the home-based problems they use work to remedy. In our practice, we’ve noticed that when given time and space, family issues can be attended to and resolution achieved. Continuing to avoid troubles can have a tragic end, such as affairs, divorce and alienation. Children suffer too. While we don’t recommend that a holiday is time to start family therapy, we do suggest that becoming reacquainted with one’s family can help.
When there is more time, fewer scheduled activities and domestic duties, families can relax a little , helping offset existing tensions. Attempts to re-connect may be difficult at first but worth the wait. Remaining patient, taking it slow and being willing to listen are the first steps. Resolving to seek professional help from a family psychologist after the vacation to delve more deeply into familial dynamics can help too.
3. The Self Avoider
Having time on one’s hands can be frightening if avoiding life’s nagging questions is paramount. Self Avoiders may find that the absence of a long “to do” list leaves too much time for uncomfortable thoughts. In our practice, we’ve noticed that questions about the choices one has made in life can suddenly surface. Thoughts like: “Do I like my job?” or “It’s too late to change” can crop up. Self doubt about one’s choices, regrets and resentments may make downtime seem like something to avoid. However, making time to take a break is useful. Recognize that when you haven’t given yourself time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going, you risk living an unexamined life. By confronting questions about the meaning of our lives, we can develop game plans improving them. Be aware that you probably won’t find answers to any of the “big” questions you may pose yourself while on vacation. Just posing them and perhaps letting the answer arise on its own is all you might accomplish during your break.
When given the opportunity to take a break, the uber-achiever schedules the vacation down to the minute to simulate the frantic office pace he or she is used to. Uber-achievers may sign on for holidays that take them to 10 European cities in 3 days, decide to climb a mountain or learn and perfect a new sport. Others choose to engage in a rigorous personal growth schedule including therapy and meditation retreats, topped off with a spa/boot camp experience.
This kind of exhausting schedule nets a similar adrenalin rush experienced at work. Even deciding to take a stack of still unread business books and magazines on holiday can defeat the purpose of a full retreat. Reading a novel or something completely unrelated to achieving work or personal goals is good. Engaging in activities for their own sake rather than having a self or career improvement goal in mind is also useful.
Going to bed at a good hour and not setting the alarm is helpful to uber-achievers, as is refraining from talking shop. If you find your self chatting about work, give yourself a maximum of 10-15 minutes then find another topic. Schedule nothing for days at a time; make no commitments. Plan to have no plans. Give yourself permission to turn down invitations. It may sound counter-intuitive to uber-achievers but by resisting all the great opportunities to experience something new, learn something useful or contribute to your community on your break, you’ll find yourself renewed and enthusiastic upon your return to your busy life.
A big reason people are afraid of stopping for a period of time is they fear they’ll lose their motivation to get going again. In most cases, the opposite is true. If people take a well-timed break they’ll return renewed, refreshed and ready to go. The people who don’t stop ironically risk being forced to take a break due to burnout. And that is when the stress really sets in.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.