Real Work-Life Balance Starts With Your Boss

If you want to hear that you need to take a vacation, the U.S. Travel Association is probably the organization to ask. That said, yesterday’s Upside of Downtime Forum, held in New York, organized by the USTA’s Project: Time Off, and featuring speakers like Arianna Huffington and Randi Zuckerberg, offered reasons why your boss should be pushing for you to take a holiday, as well. Of course, the real question is: does your employer understand the value of time away from work – or are your official vacation days, if you’re lucky enough to have them, merely a mirage?


(Photo Credit: Zach Minor/Unsplash)

In her book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, Arianna Huffington describes how out of touch many of us are with our body’s need to recharge:

You know the warning that comes up on your phone when it’s running out of battery power: “Alert! You’re running below 20 percent!” Unfortunately, we don’t have an indicator like this that alerts us when our bodies are out of energy. Imagine being in a meeting with someone and suddenly realizing, “Oh, wait, we need to stop here; I’m only at 10 percent – I need to take a nap and recharge.”

Huffington’s wakeup call came in 2007, when she collapsed from exhaustion and broke her cheekbone on the corner of her desk. Subsequent medical tests confirmed that nothing was wrong with her beyond a problem very familiar to many working people: lack of sleep and too much work.

You Can’t Produce If You’re Not Productive

No, that’s not an homage to the late, great Yogi Berra: it’s a fact, and one that seems like heresy in many corporate cultures. In her talk, Huffington spoke of a “collective delusion that burnout is the way to succeed,” and going by the environment in many offices, it’s a mass hallucination.

Look at the heroes we laud in business and technology, from Thomas Edison to Elon Musk: their fame might be primarily due to their inventiveness, but it’s at least secondarily because of the nonstop work it took them to produce.

“The challenge [of working with Elon Musk] is that he is a machine and the rest of us aren’t,” says Dolly Singh, Former Head of Talent Acquisition at SpaceX, on Quora, while noting the growth opportunities that come with working with someone who can keep churning out world-changing ideas when most of us would need a nap.

Even if your job doesn’t involve literal rocket science, it may require long hours, thanks in part to technology that allows workers to be always available, even if they’re supposed to be sleeping or attending their kid’s soccer game.

The problem, of course, is that by working all the time, we’re not working as well as we could be. Consider:

  • Research shows that knowledge workers – i.e., those of you who are reading this on your work computer right now – are good for about six hours of work a day. More than that, and productivity falls off. As Sara Robinson writes at AlterNet, “You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.”
  • Leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman recently crunched some data on vacation time and productivity, and found that workers in countries with more vacation time were more productive. It appeared that spending less time at their desk gave them a stronger desire to get work done quickly.
  • Vacation might make you a nicer co-worker. “Vacation time is important for physical health, emotional health, interpersonal clarity and personal comfort – as well as increased efficiency and decreased irritability while working,” psychiatrist David Reiss tells US News.

So, Can We Take Time Off?

According to Project: Time Off’s research, two-thirds of workers said “they heard either nothing, mixed messages, or negative messages about taking vacation time.” Meanwhile, 80 percent of the managers surveyed said that using vacation time is important to maintaining energy levels.

The problem is that workers who don’t receive any information from their managers about vacation might perceive no message as no endorsement, and worry that they’ll get in trouble for taking their PTO.

Anecdotes are not data, but I took an informal and extremely unscientific survey of my friends and colleagues after the forum, and found that while a refreshing number of people reported being encouraged to take their vacation time, the folks who weren’t had some gnarly stories to report.

“I’ve had jobs where the implication is that when you got back from your vacation you may not have a job,” said one friend, who’s worked in tech for 20 years. “I’ve seen people get laid off within a week or two of their vacations. It’s coincidence, but it still has an impact on your decision making.”

Another reported that a former employer made anyone who took vacation time “feel like a leper,” and fired several people after they returned from planned, earned time off, which resulted in everyone feeling too paranoid to take their PTO.

In her session, Randi Zuckerberg said, “It starts with company culture.” In short, if you’re not receiving messages about vacation from your manager, you might not be able to assume that the news is good; also if the CEO sets a tone that won’t allow for time off, anyone below him or her on the corporate ladder is going to have a lot of trouble bucking the trend.

Given your druthers, the best thing to do is to work for someone who isn’t a jerk.

If You Can’t Change Jobs

Of course, many of us do not have our druthers, at least, not all the time, and if the recession taught us anything, it’s to hold on to the job we have until something better comes up.

If you’re stuck in a culture that doesn’t allow you to take time off, there are a few small things you can do to make your life better right now, while you look for a more congenial atmosphere:

  • Teach people how to treat you. Randi Zuckerberg reminded the forum that if you answer email at 2 a.m., everyone will come to expect you to keep doing it. Don’t allow your work day to expand, if you can help it.
  • Turn off your phone at night. Arianna Huffington advised picking a time of day to turn off your devices and “gently escort them out of the bedroom.”
  • Ask for help. “It’s really OK to lean on the people around you for help,” Zuckerberg said. Whether you’re looking for vacation coverage or just another set of eyes on an important project, don’t make the mistake of thinking that going it alone will make you look tougher.

Tell Us What You Think

Can you take time off from work, or is it secretly not allowed? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.