Time out: why leaders need vacations

2013

We all know how important holidays and vacations (in other words, time spent away from work) are for our health and well-being, but many leader-types refuse to believe these truths and demonstrate their unbelief by not spending time away from work themselves.

If we do get away for a while, we bring our iPads, smart phones, and laptops with us to catch up on work because we fear an avalanche upon return (mea culpa). We'd all like to think our operations can't survive without us, but the message this "I'm too-important-to-get-away-from-work" behavior sends is that we boss-types are control-mongering micromanagers who don't trust anyone else to conduct the affairs of business while we're out of the office.

Vacations and Health

Speaking of health and well-being, recent studies show that our health, mood, tension, energy, and job satisfaction all improve when we take time off away from work. This time ought to be precious and blissful, with carefree activities outside the normal daily challenges of the grind. However, the sad part is many of us never truly leave the office behind.

These health/holiday studies show that the stresses related to our jobs return to full volume within a week of returning to work. Ouch! Just thinking about the stresses of the job can jolt as many physiological issues as sitting right smack in the middle of the work-place fray. To make matters worse, some vacations are as stressful as the jobs themselves (quick paced schedules, whistle stops, out of range holiday costs, and being with people you don't really like). Our bodies can't tell the difference between high stressed vacations and work.

Stress and Quality

We've read time and time again that high-stress has a negative impact on the quality of products and services an organization produces. Stress forces a stranglehold of myopia, masking the purpose of our jobs. In essence, high stress forces us into micromanagement-land, that rule of force none of us want to work under, but we tend to do ourselves. We must see bigger pictures of our work to understand that our behavior is what establishes culture, and the most effective cultures are friendly, collaborative, supportive, and fun. Sticking our noses into people's work creates anything but these kinds of productive cultures.

Roadblocks to Leaving the Office Behind

Even if we try to leave the office behind, it may take several days to wind down. Our brains can be in full 'work- mode' for a week once a vacation begins, mentally tempting us to check-in with the office to see how things are going. What's more, our obsessive culture further prevents us from truly getting away from it all.

I can't speak for the rest of the world, and I'm taking a chance at stereotyping the entire US leader population, but it appears from the data that we Americans simply don't know how to vacation. We're the only advanced economy in the world with no legally-guaranteed vacations for workers. What kind of message does that omission send? Work, work, work until you no longer add value and then get out of the way because your replacements are moving in.

True, that's a pretty extreme interpretation, but unintentional messages are often stronger than the truth. We tout that time away from the workplace is important (work/life balance), but somehow we refuse to believe it, even to the point of requiring workers to stay connected (phone or internet) while on vacation.

Pondering, Thinking, and a Better World

I've explained before that our best thinking happens when we ponder or reflect. We can't do either if we're bouncing from assignment to assignment, at work or on vacation. My most inspirational thinking moments are on holiday, gazing at trees, water, the sky, or while reading, hiking, or fishing. It's those Zen-like moments I crave but rarely experience.

The irony in this discussion is the American economy thrives on tourism, to the range of one and a quarter trillion dollars a year and 1.2 million jobs. That's a lot of vacations! Yet Americans seem to be the worst at enjoying the few vacations we get.

Leaders and Vacations

What does this mean for leaders? Leaders must learn to get away from the workplace and not check in to see how the troops are getting along. This simple action of getting away can build trustful relationships between boss and employees, and within the troops. Constant checking in delivers a message of micromanaging and distrust. Ultimately the culture dribbles away to one of low collaboration, no support, and cynicism.

The next time you take vacation, leave your smart phone and iPad behind and enjoy your time off. You'll be better off, as will your workplace, family, and friends.

"When the going gets tough, the tough go to lunch" – Tim Runco, friend and cohort.

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About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.