Should You Work During Vacation?

Vacation Relaxation: A Graph

I probably don’t need to write the article; just read this chart!

“No man needs a vacation so much as a man who has just had one.”
–Elbert Hubbard

The first time I deployed to Bosnia, I worked for a while in a headquarters unit before taking over my tank platoon. This was in 1996, when the Internet hadn’t really become ubiquitous. Our office got a satellite phone which we could use to call back to the United States in the case of needing to provide family emergency notifications, either with an injured or killed soldier. The phone number was an Atlanta area code, so occasionally, we’d get a random wrong number call. I can imagine that the person on the other end of the line was quite confused when we continued to insist that, by dialing a local number, the caller had reached Bosnia.

The Army allowed rest and recuperation leave for two weeks during the deployment, so before I took over my tank platoon, I went home for my leave. Even though I was supposed to be resting and recuperating, one of the things I couldn’t wait to do was plop a quarter in a pay phone and call the office in Bosnia. For some reason, the idea of calling Bosnia from a local phone was fascinating. Unfortunately, nobody in the office thought this was as fascinating as I did, since I was calling while on leave, and they were still deployed.

This episode started my rather unfortunate history of never being able to completely drop work during any vacations.

Not only am I not alone, I’m, surprisingly to me, in the majority. Americans take less and less vacation, and the vacation we take doesn’t seem to truly be an escape. Even the etymology of the word suggests a different picture than what we do nowadays. The origin is “freedom from something” – in this case, freedom from work.

Of course, very few people in the 14th century had the opportunity to take vacation. Nowadays, we’re expected to take vacation.

But, instead of truly taking vacation and getting away from work, we take on the victim mentality and tell ourselves that work needs us. It’s our attempt to make that relationship a little less unilateral. Most of us need work for the income, the benefits, and even the social network. In few cases, unless we’re the owner or know how to do something that nobody else can do which makes the business go, the relationship doesn’t go the other way. We’re replaceable, so while taking a vacation, we tell ourselves that we need to at least check in, if not do more, to make ourselves less easily replaced.

You’d think Monkey Brain would want you to relax, wouldn’t you? Leisure is the currency of Monkey Brain. However, in this case, fear drives Monkey Brain’s activities. Remember, prospect theory tells us that a loss hurts us more than an equivalent gain makes us feel good (to read more about prospect theory, you can read Play the Market Like a Hedge Fund Manager). Monkey Brain fears losing your job more than he views the gain you get from vacation, and tells you that you need to work during vacation.

I co-founded a company, and we made sure that we had a generous vacation policy. We wanted our employees to take vacation, mostly to avoid burnout.

What we suspected in our gut – that vacation alleviates burnout – is further supported by professors Mina Westman and Dov Eden from Tel Aviv University. The benefits do fade over time, but, what is important, is that having a satisfying vacation improves the burnout reduction.

In other words, if you work during your vacation, you’re probably going to come back nearly as burned out as when you left for vacation. That helps neither you nor your employer, making you less effective, and defeating what you were trying to avoid in the first place – making yourself irreplaceable.

Yet, completely unwinding from vacation sounds easier than it is to put into practice. Getting completely away was much easier in 1996 when there weren’t many cell phones or Internet-connected computers. Here are some suggestions for how to make it easier to pull out the scissors and cut the cord:


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  • Put in standard operating procedures with contingency plans. Automating as many of the decisions as possible and documenting your thought process will allow others to get inside your brain and figure out what you would have done without having to call or e-mail you to find out what you think should be done.
  • If you have subordinates, tell them that you expect them to make decisions on your behalf in your absence. Allow them to make decisions and make sure you communicate (and document) that if they make decisions in your absence, they will not get negatively affected for decisions which do not work out. People are often afraid to fail because of a corporate culture which does not embrace failure, which is why they seek to have every decision approve by their manager. You have the power to protect those who work for you, so make sure that you do so. If they get experience in making decisions, it will make them stronger employees and better people to have on your team.
  • Use the if this-then that approach to contingency planning. You can read more about the if-then statement in your personal finance life by subscribing to the 52 week Financial Game Plan. The key is to brainstorm as many contingencies as possible and document what you would do in the event the contingency happens. It should be part of your standard operating procedure, and it will also force you think more about what could go wrong and how to deal with it. Going through the exercise will make you more valuable to your boss; it’s value-added work that others probably won’t have gone through.
  • Set an out of office message which explains that you won’t be replying…and stick to it. The first time someone gets an out-of-office response followed shortly by an actual response, the seal is broken and others have the expectation that you’re going to be responding. It’s hard to reset those expectations once you’ve broken them.
  • Don’t take your phone or your laptop with you. Avoid technology. If you make it hard to reach you, then people won’t try as much. You can make sure friends and family know how to reach you in case of an emergency. It’s what they did in the pre-cellular phone days, and it still works.
  • Take shorter vacations. If you really don’t think that you can be gone for a long chunk of time, then take shorter chunks of time more often. Fewer bad things can happen in a couple of days than in a couple of weeks. The juries of academia are still out on if shorter vacations help you as much as longer vacations, or if at all, but any vacation has to be better than no vacation.
  • STOP MAKING EXCUSES. This is really the biggest one. The company survived before you got there, and they’ll survive if you’re gone for a little while. No matter what you think your work situation is, you are your own biggest impediment to cutting free during a vacation.

You’ll never know if you can truly cut yourself off from work until you do it. Next time you take a vacation, try it. You might like the results and find yourself a more energized, motivated worker when you return.

Have you been able to truly cut away on vacation? What was it like? Tell us your experiences in the comments below!

About Jason Hull, CFP®

Jason Hull, CFP®, is the Chief Technology officer of myFinancialAnswers, an online comprehensive financial planning service.

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