I returned from a vacation in Peru just last night. When I was going through my work emails, I came across one asking me if it was okay to take a half day of vacation the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to spend time with some family that was in town for the long weekend.
My answer to that email was (verbatim): "You never learn. Try this email again."
I cannot tell you how many people fall into the trap of thinking that they should schedule their vacations around their work schedule. The basic premise is understandable, and certainly the intent is laudable. But the very notion that vacation is a permission-worthy act is faulty.
When you ask for permission to take a vacation, you are implicitly saying that work is the higher-order item in your life. Beyond the obvious cliches ("Work to live. Don't live to work," or whatever mantra you follow), the rationale behind this line of thinking is actually flawed.
Most of the people who read this are knowledge workers. They spend more time pushing keys than pushing rocks. And there is a prevailing thought behind the knowledge worker that simply working more hours will result in more output. Indeed it is the case that if you press a key for 12 hours, you will get more characters on the screen than if you pressed that key for 8 hours, but meaningful output in our lines of work (be it coding, marketing, writing, or whatever) is not characters on a screen. Our jobs require muscle, and just as with manual labor, prolonged use of the same muscle causes fatigue.
When you combine this fatigue with our indefatigable loyalty to work, you end up with a a recipe for declining productivity and burnout.
On a almost daily basis, we voluntarily sacrifice our renewal time. We stay at our desks a little later. "I am already late for dinner. I might as well just finish a few more things." We read and send email during our personal time at home. "We are just watching a television show. I was listening to it while I was scanning my phone." We take conference calls well into the night because that is the price we pay for a global workforce.
The result of this is that we never turn off. And in never resting our brains, we inadvertently exercise our labor muscle until the point of fatigue.
But why does this happen? How is it possible that we have bred a generation of workers so unaware of their own well-being that they are sapping the collective brainpower from our companies?
In a couple of words: too many of our leaders are asleep at the wheel.
We lead companies as if our employees are first graders. When a 6-year-old wants to use the potty, she raises her hand and politely asks if she can go to the bathroom. This makes sense because first graders lack the self-restraint to deal with freedom to come and go as they please (or maybe the restraint required to watch others come and go as they please). But we aren't first graders. How is it that we have wound up asking for permission to do something so basic as take vacation?
Overwork Apologists (those who think this behavior is all reasonable) will point out that sometimes there are deadlines that need to be met. The Overwork Apologists will also point out that it makes good sense to make sure nothing critical will get dropped. "It's just solid planning," they will say.
But here's the ugly truth: there is always going to be a deadline. There will always be a fire drill. A product launch. An event. A big release. Something urgent will always exist. And if you live your life always trying to plan around these perpetually damning events, you forego your chance to renew.
Sure, when there are deadlines it certainly might be right to put your nose to the grindstone. But that kind of pace needs to be short-lived. And it needs to be followed by a period of refresh. Without time to rest and recuperate, you slowly drain away your ability to create new thoughts. Our industries chant innovation from every rooftop, but how can you innovate if you have sapped every last bit of mental capacity to craft new thoughts and invent new things?
Managers – from low-level to executive-level – have taken advantage of our loyalty for too long. They allow the workforce to over-extend themselves. Why? Because they are getting extra hours out of their workers. In fact, they are applauded for their leadership skills. But what they are really doing is bleeding their companies dry. As a high tech company, you can only win if you have one of two things: a consistent supply of new ideas, or a bunch of patents to fight off the competition.
As a manager, if you haven't reviewed the patent portfolio recently, it means you need to be counting on the first one. This means you need to be aware of your employees' mental fatigue, even when they are not. You need to be actively coaching your teams to take time to refresh, even when it is not convenient. You need to be talking about rest as a top-tier priority, not leaving it out of the conversation entirely.
Rest and renewal are not just automatic byproducts of the few precious days between milestones. They don't happen on their own anymore than products manage themselves through a lifecycle. They need to be part of the natural dialogue between leaders and those in their employ. And if it is not part of the conversation, it is absolutely the manager's fault.
It has taken us decades of diligent practice to effectively kill the idea of renewal in our industry. It is going to take more than just one conversation to revive it. As a leader, this means you need to both practice and preach the importance of recuperation. You should start today: schedule a vacation. Do it on your schedule without worrying about the deadlines you will miss. And then communicate it to your team so they see how it works.
My trip to Peru overlapped with a Board of Directors meeting. As it turns out, the meeting went fine without me. Trust me when I say that your company will not only survive but be better off because you have renewed.
And if you do the leadership thing well enough, hopefully you won't have to grant someone permission to take half a day off when you return.