Should You Work During Vacation?

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:

  • 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!

Published by

Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

8 thoughts on “Should You Work During Vacation?

  1. A recent Harvard Business Review podcast profiled a professor in the US who completed a similar study. She found that four days away is about the perfect length of time. After that you’re enjoying your vacation, but the workplace effects have completely worn off.

    You’re right on the money, though. I think we tend to think of work as a sprint rather than a marathon…and you can’t sprint for 30 years.

    1. Hey Joe!

      Take one extra day off during holiday weekends (President’s Day, Columbus Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, MLK, et al), and you’re set, right?

      There’s also an onus on the employer to create an environment where the employees feel it’s OK to take vacation, rather than just having it be a hand-waving notion to claim that you provide “great benefits.” I never felt like I could take time off in the Army or at Capital One, and it’d be interesting to see if people who work at my old company (some of whom I know drop by here) actually feel like they can take their full allocation.

      I imagine new employees are the most guilty of this, trying to be spotlight rangers from day 1 to show their value, when, counterintuitively, it’s best for them to stay quiet and in the background for a while until they can prove that they know what the heck they’re doing. More seasoned employees (unless they’re under threat of layoffs) probably know their value to the employer and don’t have as much fear or victim mentality.

  2. When I went to Peru in May for vacation I left all communication devices at home – no cell phone, no laptop, etc. The only electronic device I brought was my Kindle. It was wonderful to be fully “unplugged” from my day-to-day life and allowed me the escape I truly needed. And it meant I was ready to return to the real world, work and all, when I came back after 10 days.

    1. I’ve found that if I can completely untether myself from work (which, as an entrepreneur, is never easy to do), after about 7 days, I’m ready to get back to the task at hand, mostly because I have ideas bubbling up in my head that I want to capture. It allows me to rekindle the excitement.

      The great vacations do that. They actually do recharge you. Even if you’re hiking in 5 digit altitudes and gasping for air! The key is that unplugging. If you don’t do that, you may as well be at work.

      I bet your co-workers noticed a different Courtney when you got back from Peru (besides being drunk on oxygen).

  3. I find it very hard not to work while on vacation. When i’m relaxing, work is all i can think about. I guess it’s fair to say i’m a work-aholic!

    1. Hi Joshua– Thanks for commenting! It’s a good sign that you enjoy your work. Have you tried what Courtney suggested above and take no connected technology on a vacation? You should try it next time! It’s liberating.

  4. My husband used to take vacation—and go into post and work. It was expected, even over Christmas.
    He retired early and is making up the time. You cannot get back a five year old’s Christmas though.
    He now tells our son- active duty- to never miss a vacation day!

    1. I remember seeing our battalion commander in the office every day during leave. I made sure my leave address was far enough away that nobody would be tempted to try to call me in. That was back in the days before cell phones. You’re right. You can never regain that time.

      I hope your son is able to take his allotted leave. I know a lot of soldiers on the use-lose threshold who lost leave.

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