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Rethinking Vacations: Why unplugging while on vacation is the best thing for you – and your team

Published on April, 23rd 2018
By Greg Wells

When were you last on a truly relaxing, restorative, health-building vacation? I’m talking downed tools and time completely away from normal life. Before you answer, check all of the points below that apply:

  • You were entirely “unproductive” – you may have been engaged in meaningful and even challenging activities (running a 10K, learning how to scuba dive, cooking French cuisine), but you did not contribute toward your work life.
  • You didn’t feel stressed or worry about what was happening in the “real world.”
  • You didn’t check email or other work-related communications.
  • You made arrangements in advance to arrive back to an empty email inbox.
  • You returned home and to work feeling like a new you.

That’s the ideal, so you may not have covered all the bases. But I’m going to explain why you should be reaching toward that ideal. It’s not just to take proper care of yourself and your loved ones – which is highly important – but also to improve your work performance, that of your team, and the success of your business.

There is data to support these claims. Project: Time Off, an initiative of the US Travel Association, has conducted large surveys of Americans on their attitudes toward and use of vacation time. It has also accessed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis on vacation activity and paid time off.

Their findings are instructive. It turns out that vacation use has been in a steady decline since 2000, from 20 days per year to 16 days per year, which is nearly a full week less than in 1976-2000. Things have improved slightly since then with 17.2 days of vacation taken per employee in 2017 but a majority of the working population – 52% – still reported having unused vacation days at the end of the year.

I’m guessing you’re not surprised.

We live in a state of constant connectivity, which helps to explain why 55% of Americans left vacation days unused in 2015. The thought of being “disconnected” makes employees anxious, so they either don’t go away or they take their work with them.

What are our greatest fears when it comes to breaking away? These, in order: that we will return to a mountain of work, that no-one else can do the job, that time off is harder with seniority, that we want to show complete dedication to our work, and that we are expected to respond to work anyway.

Those fears are realistic. Corporate culture isn’t always supportive of vacation time. The expectation of a 24/7 connected workplace explains why only 27% of employees actually unplug on vacation and 78% say they are more comfortable taking time off if they know they can access work.

Aside from the costs to our health and happiness – and those are not small! – the main problem with all this “can’t get away” thinking is that it is founded on a myth. The myth is that working more makes you more successful and valuable to your company. But what if that wasn’t true?

Through its research, Project: Time Off has discovered that people who used fewer than 10 of their earned vacation days per year had a 34.6% chance of raise or bonus, while those who used more than 10 vacation days had a 65.4% chance. In addition, an internal study conducted by Ernst & Young found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation time employees took, their year-end performance ratings improved 8%.

Let’s put the myth to rest that work martyrdom is required for career success and look at the real costs of missing out on down time.

In a Harvard Business Review article titled “Emailing While You’re on Vacation is a Quick Way to Ruin Company Culture,” Katie Dennis offers two observations that ought to make business leaders rethink their go-go attitude to work.

  1. Sixty-nine percent of employees in companies that don’t support unplugging do not feel valued and 64% do not feel cared about as a person. They are also highly likely to be looking for another job.
  2. Trusting employees to handle the business while you’re away uncovers new capacities and talents in them and develops their skills, which grows your business.

In addition, as Srini Pillay points out in another Harvard Business Review article titled “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus,” being in work mode all the time exhausts the focus circuits in the brain, which drains mental energy and reduces self-control. Rest and vacation relieve our minds of constant focus and lead to increased creative problem solving, more accurate predictions of the future (better decision making), and a greater ability to tune into others (better collaboration and teamwork).

On the personal side of the ledger, research shows that time away from work reduces stress and depression, improves heart health and sleep, and strengthens family bonds and relationship satisfaction.

It’s time to rethink the value of vacations – and for senior leaders to model a healthier and more productive corporate culture.

Recently, two leaders at the Bank of Montreal decided to challenge that corporate norm. Julie Barker-Merz, Senior Vice President of the Southwestern Ontario Division, embarked on an unplugged vacation, with the support of Sharon Slade, Senior HR Business Partner. Here’s my interview with them about this issue and how to actually take a vacation:

The importance of unplugging while you are away and trusting your team to hold the fort

Two BMO leaders, Sharon Slade (Senior HR Business Partner) and Julie Barker-Merz (Senior Vice President Southwestern Ontario Division) discuss their effort to change the culture around vacations, including details of Julie’s recent device-free vacation.

Dr. Greg Wells: Sharon, can you tell us how the two of you got going with this initiative?

Sharon Slade: Julie and her team of 14 VPs had been talking about wellbeing and one of the topics was unplugged vacations. For the most part, people can’t imagine doing it. They feel that checking email is no big deal. As you and I have discussed, there are some very sound reasons to unplug. So when it came time for Julie to go on vacation, she agreed to model it for everyone else by going away and not even taking her devices with her.

Julie Barker-Merz: It’s funny, because close to the time I was leaving, I told Sharon my plan was to take my phone, check it at the airport and then leave it in the safe at the hotel. Sharon challenged me to leave my devices at home to eliminate the temptation to check in. So I went for it. I left my phone and iPad on the kitchen counter. I had zero devices for nine days.

GW: That’s amazing. You also had a radical approach to managing your email. Can you tell us about it?

JBM: At some point, I saw a post online with an out-of-office message that said “I will delete all emails received during vacation, so if it’s important, re-send it to me on the day I return.” I got such a kick out of that. So, I challenged my team to do it. I said, “I’m giving you full permission. Delete all my emails. Delete everybody’s emails.” When it was my time to head out, I wrote an out-of-office message just like the one I had seen, which actually generated more of a stir than me saying I would not be checking email. People didn’t believe that I would actually do that.

GW: Did you do anything special before you left to set it up?

JBM: Not really. I talked to my boss the day before about what I was doing. She just said, “Great. Have an awesome vacation.” I told the team, most of whom laughed and clarified that it made them “feel better” to check email while they were away. And I spoke to three key people on my team, including Sharon. I said, “If anything comes up, just get together and make a decision. Your three heads are better than my one. If you make the wrong decision, it’s okay. I’ll stand by it. It’s fine.” Really, it was pretty easy to do because I have real confidence in them. We have worked together for a year and a half. I knew they would come up with the right solution.

GW: Sharon, tell us how it went for the team back home while Julie was away.

SS: Well, I’m only one part of Julie’s great team, but one or two things did come up that needed SVP approval. So we had a few minor panic moments. It challenged us to think through what Julie would do. Before she left, Julie made it clear that she believed in us, so we just found what seemed like the best solution and carried on. We felt really empowered.

JBM: Looking back on it, I can see that it was a leadership moment for me. It highlighted a way I can coach and lift my team up, which will help them lift their own team up. It’s something many leaders struggle with, so this approach to vacation has the potential to help build trust in that way.

SS: That’s so true. When leaders are away, they generally leave their strongest manager in charge and there are plenty of support mechanisms, so I don’t think they are really worried that things won’t get handled well. I think they feel guilty or protective – like they don’t want someone else to have to deal with a mess. I think that kind of misses the point. When Julie was away and genuinely left us to cope with it, it was a great opportunity for growth.

GW: Sharon, from your perspective, what were the key things Julie did that made the experiment work?  

SS: It helped that she put the proclamation out there that she was going device free. She posted it on Twitter, Yammer and her out of office. That helped everyone, including her, be accountable to follow through. She also wrote a really detailed out of office message. She explained that all emails received while she was away would be deleted, and she gave specific instructions about who to contact for various issues, including making it clear that she had given a particular team member full decision-making authority. I also think it helped that she left her phone at home, because it’s just way too tempting otherwise.

Dr. Greg Wells: Julie, now that you have done the experiment, would you do it again?

Julie Barker-Merz: Oh, hands down. I’m doing this every vacation. It’s a no-brainer. I am shocked that more people aren’t doing it. One other VP did it before me and he feels the same way. Once you’ve tried it, you won’t ever go back.

GW: Okay. That’s a strong endorsement. Tell us about the effect it had on you.

JBM: I felt so present that whole week with my family. I read two books cover to cover. I’ve never done that on vacation. Before, I would read a page and just keep reading it over and over, because I’ve just read a bunch of emails and my mind is racing. Instead, I was relaxed, I slept well, I didn’t worry. Everything seemed simple and easy. It was fascinating. Now, I’ve been back for three weeks, and I’m still feeling that zen, for lack of a better word. I still feel like I’m not in the tornado.

GW: Wow! That’s amazing. Now tell us about what it was like when you returned to work.

JBM: The biggest piece was deleting 800 emails on Monday morning. Truth be told, I did scan them to make sure there was nothing burning. It took about 30 minutes. I read about 15 emails out of the 800, and then blindly deleted the rest of them. From there, I just started the day like it was any other. I didn’t have that horrible cloud hanging over me. The pace felt reasonable and normal. I didn’t have that panicked four or five days of recovery where I am scrambling and feeling like I never even went on vacation.

GW: You are in a pretty senior role. What’s your sense of the impact it had on other people?

JBM: That’s interesting – on the Monday morning, I only got four emails re-sent to me. In each case, the person said something to the effect of, “It’s so great you weren’t in touch. I hope you had a great vacation. Here’s an email you should probably see.” Four out of the 800. I’ve been back for three weeks and there have been no downstream implications of me not reading the emails.

GW: Sharon, what’s your sense of the impact that Julie’s approach had on everyone else?

Sharon Slade: As I said earlier, I think Julie’s approach reinforced the trust she has in all of us. She put the responsibility on our shoulders and it felt really good. I think her re-entry went smoothly because instead of her pushing us to update her, she trusted that we would let her know if she needed to hear about something. Often, when a leader is returning from vacation, the employees get bombarded. The boss is sending out 100 emails with requests to follow up. It wasn’t like that. It was calm and easy.

JBM: That’s interesting. I didn’t think a lot in advance about the downstream impact of sending out emails, but you are right. Last time I went away, I brought my computer for the sole purpose of doing a download before I got on the plane, and spent 10 hours on the plane doing emails. When I got home, I plugged in and all those emails went out. Some people would have received 20 of them. I hadn’t thought much about how by actioning those emails, I was hampering the productivity on my team. It’s so true that that is an added benefit.

If you’re interested in getting a copy of my new book The Ripple Effect you can get it here!

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