I have been a passionate defender of vacations for most of my career, but I didn’t start out as an advocate for taking paid time off. In fact, there are three specific dates etched into my memories that demonstrate why I regularly made the case against using paid time off.
Guilt About Asking for Time Off
I sat in my boss’s office awaiting the start of our weekly meeting, my hands folded on my lap, my eyes fixed on a multi-colored stress ball on his desk just inches away from me. I considered the irony of its presence and my pressing desire to pick it up, squeeze it for just a moment, and set it back in place before he came into the room. As my fingertips twitched upward, I heard his footsteps down the hall, and moments later the door shut sharply behind me. He greeted me warmly, but it did nothing to melt my anxiety. “How are things going?” he asked.I shifted in my seat, my eyes still fixed on the stress ball. I inhaled deeply, raised my eyes to meet his, and shared the seven words I had been rehearsing for days.
“I’m planning to use some vacation time,” I said.
His eyebrows shot skyward, and instantly I could read all of the thoughts he was about to share with me. And sure enough, out they poured.
The team is going to be understaffed if you are gone for a full week.
Have you thought about how you are going to make up the work?
Does this mean you are going to miss deadlines?
Is this really a good time for you to take a vacation?
I cringed, the guilt seeping into my body as if it were being poured on top of me and absorbed through my skin. I felt horrible about my request, my selfish idea to place my professional burden on the shoulders of my colleagues for a week. I knew my boss was right; I knew using my vacation time was a terrible idea.
Wasted Vacation Days
No one likes to be called into their boss’s office unexpectedly, but I had somehow managed to achieve a fate even worse than that: I was summoned to meet with the COO, my boss’s boss. I was finishing the first year of my very first “real” job, and I scanned the previous 12 months for any reason I might be in trouble. I showed up early. I stayed late. To my relief, the COO acknowledged that. He was happy with my work ethic and my productivity. But he wasn’t completely happy.“You’re going to lose all of you vacation time this year,” he told me. “You haven’t taken a single day off.” He was right; I had avoided using my paid time off since my first day. In the first few months I hadn’t accrued enough hours to take any meaningful time off, and so it continued to build. As the time passed my workload grew, and soon I felt that any vacation day I might take would undo the hard work to which I was so committed. Soon I was dedicated to maintaining my perfect attendance and proving myself as a worthy team player. And I felt justified in doing so; after all, I barely made enough money to cover my rent and my car payment. It’s not like I could afford to do anything with my vacation days. Still, I had no idea the company’s leadership was focusing on my growing paid time off balance.
“It’s up to you if you don’t want to take vacation,” the COO told me with a shrug. “But the days don’t carry over, and you won’t get paid out for them. If I were you, I would take some time off.” His words stayed with me as I walked back to my desk. Within moments of checking my email and consulting my to do list I forgot them. I didn’t have the time or money for a vacation anyway.
Working Through Vacation Time
Outside my hotel room, just on the other side of the door, Paris beckoned. It was a warm, sunny August day in the City of Lights, and I couldn’t wait to explore. Like most first-time visitors, Paris held a certain mystique for me, and a day spent at the Eiffel Tower and wandering around Musée d’Orsay sounded like the perfect way to wrap up a productive business trip.As I slipped my purse over my shoulder, I glanced at my inbox one final time. There were five unread messages, including one from my boss. It was a Friday, still a work day despite my vacation day, so I quickly typed a response. I smiled, figuring it would give me a few bonus points just a few weeks before my annual review. I glanced through the other messages and was about to turn off my laptop when another new message appeared: a response from my boss. This time, the email was accompanied by a few requests: could I run a report on attendees for our next meeting and draft a few customized letters for the people with confirmed travel plans? With my upcoming review weighing on me, I dropped my purse to the floor and sat down at the desk. If I didn’t handle these requests, someone else would need to do it in my absence. I didn’t think it was fair to burden a co-worker with tasks that were assigned to me; after all, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to the conference in the first place.
Hours later, with my work complete and my inbox empty, Paris still beckoned. By then, the warmth of the sunshine was replaced with the chill of evening. I spent 45 minutes—less than an hour!—rushing through Musée d’Orsay before the doors closed for the night, and I limited myself to just a few moments in front the Eiffel Tower before returning to my hotel to pack. My single free day in Paris was over, reduced to hectic sightseeing and hours of unplanned work. I hoped my annual review would be positive—and worth the extra few hours.
Was it worth it in the end?
For years, these were the themes that governed how I used—or, more accurately, didn’t use—my vacation time. I didn’t want to disappoint my bosses or burden my colleagues. I felt guilty for wanting to take time off when most other people didn’t seem to need a break. I was scared to jeopardize my career in exchange for a vacation that might make me seem lazy, dispassionate, or uncommitted. The only way to grow, to demonstrate my leadership abilities, and to prove myself was to be present—and you can’t be present if you take a vacation.There were never happy endings to my vacation stories during the first 10 years of my career. I passed up on using my paid time off to earn promotions; those promotions never materialized. I felt myself growing more and more tired as the years dragged on, burning myself out as I worked toward goals I just wasn’t attaining. I could produce results, but my creativity was stifled. I reflected on days like the one I spent in Paris with regret, miserable for missing out on experiences I would have truly enjoyed.
I took my first “real” vacation with Adam in 2011 when we went to Australia for our honeymoon. For two weeks I felt justified in not checking email or working on projects; after all, if there is one time no employer expects you to be online it’s during your honeymoon. I was surprised by how different our time away felt when not accompanied by pangs of guilt and the reflex to check my email every few minutes. My head started to feel clearer, and I found myself experiencing our daily adventures with a sense of presence I had never felt before. Usually, my body was traveling but my mind was still connected to the office; I was amazed by how much better I felt when every part of me was in the moment. When our plane pushed back from the airport in Sydney and our journey back to our typical daily life began, I thought about my aversion to using my paid time off. Before, taking vacation time felt, at best, like an unnecessary luxury or, at worst, a personal defeat for not having the dedication or stamina to work every single day. When I returned to the office, I found myself refreshed and focused; my work ethic was stronger, and my professional performance was better than ever. No one was as surprised as me that it was a vacation that made me a better employee.
5 Ways vacation time has helped me at work
What is it about using my vacation time that has made me a better, more productive employee? There are dozens of reasons, but there are five that resonate with me every time I return to work after taking time off.
► I Find My Creative Spark
Vacation time has unequivocally helped me develop and hone my creativity. Through travel, I have seen the world through thousands of different lenses. As a workplace learning and performance consultant, I have been able to bring the colors, sights, and even emotions I experience into my daily work. I credit all of that to changing my environment; vacations have helped me to get away from the office to see or try new things. Travel has awakened my curiosity about the world, which in turn has driven me to be more creative and improve the quality of the work I do.
► I Connect with People
One of the best parts of taking vacation time is connecting with people. Some vacations have allowed me to spend more time with friends and family; from trips away from home to days curled up on the couch swapping stories with the people who visit me, those vacation days are some of my most cherished. Still, traveling has introduced me to fascinating people I would never connect with if I didn’t take vacations. I have developed lasting friendships with people I have met in locations as remote as Antarctica and as close to home as local wineries. They have challenged me to think differently, communicate, and listen. Each of those skills has helped me to develop my professionalism and strengthen my own performance in the workplace.
► I Embrace Adaptability
Vacation—especially vacations spent traveling—are defined by adaptability. On countless occasions I have abandoned my preference for order and structure to handle canceled flights, lost hotel reservations, restaurants that have closed early, and tour guides that never arrived. Each of these experiences has challenged me, but each of them has been resolved—and I have learned lessons that translate back into my day job. Adaptability is a critical skill for success in the workplace, and learning how to address challenges and adapt to changes has helped me to be more engaged, productive, and forgiving when working with teams.
► I Calm Down
I spent a lot of my career mistaking stress for professional drive. It’s a mistake many people make; what feels like commitment to your work is actually stress about missing deadlines, disappointing your boss, or failure. Stepping away from my work—taking vacation days—has helped me achieve a healthier perspective on how my body responds to stress and what I can do to support myself. On vacation, I can choose the pace at which I want to move. Some vacations help me slow to a crawl, and others encourage me to focus my time and energy on experiencing everything a place has to offer. The result is always the same: I restore calm in my life, and I leave stress behind. The mental and physical impact vacation days have had on my life have been enormously positive.
► I Have Fun
Life is short, and it should be fun. While work should certainly be fun (after all, we spend a significant amount of our lives doing it!), not every job is defined by fun and most of us will encounter at least one culture, person, or role who makes work feel anything but fun. Vacation time has proven to be a truly effective way to restore fun into my life at times when work has been stressful; in fact, a 2010 study determined the simple act of planning to use vacation days can boost your happiness. Taking vacation days and returning to work with a more relaxed, positive attitude has made me a strong contributor—and the sense of joy and fun I get from using vacation days is something I can share with colleagues.
Since 2011, I have made it my mission to put my vacation time to good use. Some years, vacation time has helped me to travel the world; during other years, I have used vacation time to entertain visitors at home, explore my own community, or simply take a day or two off from my commute to relax in front of the TV. Taking time off from work has helped me to learn and grow through both rest and new experiences, and it is now a critical aspect to how I approach my life. I use the skills I have developed and lessons I have learned when I work. I use my vacation time to strengthen my skills so that my return to work is boosted by how I spent my time off. It’s a cycle that inspires and motivates me to give my all to my work at the same time it fuels my personal need to relax, stay healthy, and enjoy myself.
You Will Benefit from a Vacation, Too
Our new workshop, the Business of Vacation, was created not just from the wealth of data linking professional success to well-used time off but from our own experiences—and the stories our friends and family have shared with us over the years. We all need time away from the office. We all benefit from rest, relaxation, and adventure—in whatever combination is right for us as individuals. When we encourage and support each other to take vacations, we are all better off, and our work is better off, too.
We would love to hear your stories—the good, the bad, the triumphant, and the scary—about how vacation time has impacted your professional life. We love to celebrate the times when vacation invigorates your creativity and drive, and we’re here to encourage you when taking time off seems unrealistic.
If your company would benefit from a look at its own vacation culture—or lack thereof—send us a message! We believe we are all better when we use our paid time off, and companies reap the benefits just as we do.
Don’t feel guilty when you want—or need—to use time off. Don’t voluntarily lose your vacation days. Don’t waste a day in Paris. Use your vacation time to boost creativity, connect with others, improve your adaptability, calm down, and—most importantly—have fun.
Do you want to read more of our stories from the road? Here are a few more memorable experiences we’ve written about.