Q: I have an unusual work problem. I am too anxious to take my vacation time! I rarely take more than a four-day weekend because I don’t trust that my coworkers could cover everything and, honestly, it’s just extra work for me to provide an overview of my projects and then dig out hundreds of emails upon my return. What can I do to make taking time off seem less daunting?
A: This is cause for concern, and it would be wise for you to talk to your manager and explore the underlying issues that may be contributing to your vacation anxiety. Many organizations, especially in high-stress or highly secure industries, insist that employees take two weeks of vacation at a time. Organizations are increasingly aware of employee burnout and the lack of productivity and engagement that comes with it. You sound very concerned about the expectations that you will maintain your email and ensure projects are on track, when you should also be concerned about your health and emotional wellbeing. It may seem like extra work, but some preemptive planning with your manager and colleagues will be the best way to ensure a restful, stress-free vacation. And many people need to be capable of being accountable, not just one person.
To take a reasonable amount of time off and not be tortured by the workload when you come back takes planning. Your first step might be to make sure you schedule your vacation at the least busy time of year for your organization—so, if you’re a CPA, don’t plan a tropical getaway during tax season. You will also need to plan with your manager who will handle each aspect of your job while you are out, what projects might need to wait until your return, and what—if anything—would constitute an emergency that they would need to contact you. Come to agreement about which coworkers will be responsible and held accountable for the work that needs to be covered in your absence. In the week or two before your vacation, schedule time for yourself to document the projects you have going on and to share the overview with your coworkers. You might start proactively copying the appropriate coworker on your communication for any given project and letting all necessary parties know who will be covering for you while you’re out. Laying the groundwork early may start easing your anxiety.
Another part of this is how you spend your time off. Do you plan staycations that let you just sit home worrying about what’s going on at work? Or do you plan something you love that is very engaging, letting you come back refreshed and rejuvenated, having not thought about work for a week? Letting yourself truly disconnect and recharge will benefit everyone—yourself, your colleagues, and the organization.
It’s also worth exploring whether this is a more widespread issue at the company. Does everyone on the team feel this way? If so, there may be some other dysfunctions at play here. Does your company encourage a culture of rewarding those who work 80 hours a week and never take vacations? Are there other trust issues within your team that need to be worked out? Is the organization structured in a way that people are so overwhelmed with their own work that they can’t cover for you? Depending on what’s driving the issue, different solutions will need to be employed—whether it means requiring people to take vacations, engaging in team effectiveness exercises, or hiring a temp to cover the workload.
Planning for an absence at work may be overwhelming, but you can only manage what you can manage—and that’s you. You can ask colleagues for help and prepare information for them, but what you really need to manage is your own anxiety. Your approach so far has been just not taking vacation, and it’s time to find another solution. Talk to your manager, your coworkers, someone at your company’s EAP, or an external resource to sort out what the issues are.
Vacation time is a benefit you have earned, and taking advantage of it will reap far greater rewards than overworking yourself.