This past week, when grabbing my kids from Sunday school, my husband and I got to chatting with our friend who helps supervise the children's group. It turns out he was about to head out with his own kids on a trek across country, destination Yosemite. He was excited about vacation time with his family, but his enthusiasm tanked when the conversation meandered to playing catch-up at work once he got back. In fact, he said, it was like being punished.
A surprising why: Exhaustion, not pressure
After a little more conversation, my friend revealed that he usually didn't take his vacations, not because he felt internally pressured to outshine his coworkers and climb the ladder, but because he simply didn't want to deal with the harder weeks that always followed.
It was routine, he said, to work 50 or 60 hours per week for two or three weeks after a trip. So in essence, assuming a week-long trip (40 hours), at best, he actually only gets half of that as real vacation (10 hours of catch-up for 2 weeks = 20 hours). At worst, he actually has to make everything up plus another 20 hours (20 hours of catch-up for 3 weeks = 60 hours).
Vacations are supposed to be relaxing. They're supposed to be a time to find yourself again, to reconnect with other people and recharge. But the math above shows that there can be a pretty significant--not to mention stressful--tradeoff. It makes total sense to me that, under these circumstances, people would opt to remotely log in, respond to work emails, make calls and do other jobs for their teams while they're supposed to be unplugging from it all. It's logical to me that people would simply pass on vacations altogether, if a vacation means spending more hours overall at the office. It's not always just trying to get ahead, motivated by competition and habit. Sometimes, it's just trying to minimize the anxiety and fatigue that will come later!
The roots of the problem
But this begs the question: Why do we typically need to play so much catch-up after a vacation in the first place?
A lack of additional, proficient help. This doesn't always mean a company doesn't have enough workers, although that's likely the case for some businesses, especially if you're just getting off the ground. More generally, it simply means that nobody else has been taught how to step in effectively. This can happen either because an individual doesn't have time to train and complete assigned tasks, or because poor managers simply don't anticipate the problems that not having a critical worker available can create. In either case, any issues that arise during the vacation aren't easily solved until the person on break comes back, because no one else has the knowledge or authorizations to finish the work.
Poor planning on the part of the individual who leaves. If you don't put your break on the calendar well in advance or schedule projects so they wrap up just before you go, for example, it's harder for team members to help you out or get a clean breakaway.
5 ways make it easier to sign up for time off
Assuming the catch-up problem does have both management and personal causes,
1. Make sure you have a right hand (wo)man. You're looking here for someone trustworthy who can do a decent chunk of your job temporarily, not all the time. Think of other leaders in your department or, in certain circumstances, your mentees. Prepare them early to take command in your absence, offering clear directions on contacts, resources and protocols. Communicate with your own supervisors and other team members during this process to ensure a smooth leadership transition for your time off.
2. Double check your documentation. There's less of a reason for things not to get done or fixed while you're gone if your "deputies" have a written guide on what to do. Make sure the documentation is up-to-date, well organized and easy to understand even for novices. Your team should know what projects are on the table, what deadlines are upcoming and what instructions to follow for anticipated problems.
3. Schedule critical meetings a few days after you get back. This will give you a little time to get the basics back in order and figure out what's gone down in your absence before you dive into something more important.
4. Anticipate the need for catch-up by setting some blocks aside on your calendar before you go. This way, you know you'll have a chance to get to what's piled up and what's new with less stress. Just be honest with your team and clients that your availability is what it is, and make it convenient for them to book new appointments and meetings.
5. Set up a killer Out Of Office.
The best OOO is simple. It tells people that you're gone, who to contact instead of you, and that you cannot respond to any messages left during your absence. That last part, along with instructions for them to follow up with you after your return date, is crucial. It forces others to use the contacts you provide, and it allows you to assume that anything you're not contacted about again either has been fixed or wasn't a priority in the first place.
There is such a thing as a stress-free, no-strings-attached vacation that doesn't end with a feeling of doom. You just have to plan ahead and let go of the idea you have to do everything alone. The sooner you understand that, the sooner you can book that flight and skeedaddle.