Leave the Office Behind for a Change

Hartford attorney Patricia Strong hadn't taken a vacation in two years. Last February, she got married. Her honeymoon was a weekend away. "I almost took my husband to a labor lawyers' convention for my honeymoon, but I said, 'no, we can't do this.'" Her husband, Andre, a Brazilian, thinks this very American tendency to be a workaholic is "crazy," says Strong.And it's contagious. According to a recent poll taken by the Highlands Program, a nationwide career counseling service, more than a third of full-time American workers report calling into the office while on vacation. The majority of people with incomes exceeding $50,000 said they could not take a vacation without checking in with the office. And more than 60 percent of those surveyed said they would consider rescheduling their vacations if something important came up at the office.T. Scott Sewitch, a Highlands Program consultant based in Hamden, recalls going on vacation to Disneyland with his best friend's family. While Sewitch explored the Magic Kingdom with the kids, his friend -- a corporate attorney we'll call Tom -- spent a couple of hours a day at a pay phone talking to his office in Connecticut. "I had a great time taking his kids for a ride, but you could see the disappointment on their faces as they looked back over their shoulders at him," says Sewitch. "And this is not someone who lightly disregards his children.""Vacation angst occurs when people feel little balance in their lives," says Nancy Johnson, who runs a Highlands Program office in Middletown. "Opportunities to leave the office, even for vacation, feel like a crisis. Today, work often consumes an ever-greater portion of our energy and commitment. As a result, many people feel their job is their life."In many cases, that's not far from the truth. In her best-selling book The Overworked American, Harvard economist Juliet Schor notes that over the past two decades Americans have been spending more and more time at work. While the work day for Americans and Europeans was once equal, today manufacturing employees in the U.S. work 320 more hours a year than their counterparts in Germany and France. That's just about two months more time spend on the clock.It's been great for the U.S. economy; worker productivity has doubled since 1948. But it's not so good for people who want to have a life outside of work. According to surveys, Americans say they have little more than two hours a day of leisure time after working and taking care of chores. No wonder 30 percent of working adults report they feel under great stress at some point every day.A quick note to workaholics, however: stressed-out people rarely function at their most productive levels. No one is suggesting that Americans adopt the Spanish tradition of taking a month off in the summer and shutting up the shop every day for three-hour lunches and a siesta -- although it would be lovely, wouldn't it? But even the Puritans recognized the need for vacations. In fact, it was built into that famed work ethic to which we all kowtow because the Puritans believed that after some time off, people would come back and work harder.According to Highland Program consultants, there's a good deal of truth to that often-overlooked piece of wisdom. "We all need more to our lives than work," says Johnson. "Using vacation time to strengthen family relationships and achieving personal goals can be highly productive and beneficial long-term. When people take time to examine all aspects of life, they empower themselves to control their lives. They become more productive on the job and don't let work needlessly stand in the way of vacation time."Of course, that's not always easy to do in today's corporate environment. Working 9 to 5 has become a forgotten dream and vacations for longer than a week at a stretch are often frowned upon, if not outright verboten. But those who quit the rat race to chase their own career rainbows soon find that the work week doesn't get any shorter even when there's no boss breathing down their neck. For people who are self-employed, in fact, taking a vacation may be even harder."I deal with people who are one-person business who just can't take one or two weeks. They think they're going to lose business. Those first two years they're struggling for every dollar," says David Pena, a consultant for home-based businesses who runs his own business, Workplace Innovations, in Avon. "I always suggest they need to take some time away. It gives them some different perspectives, some time to think. I think they do come back with more ideas."Pena himself just came back from a three-week vacation in Texas. But like many people who work from home, he didn't leave the office behind. He brought it with him. "I do take my laptop and communicate with my clients over the phone. My clients are all on e-mail and because of the technology, you can go anywhere now."Indeed, even in the heart of the Belize rainforest, you'll find a cafe with a computer hooked up to the Internet. So while cell phones, laptops and e-mail have been a blessing to people who want to get away from it all and telecommute from the beach, it's made it hard to leave work at the office."I have been faxed around the world and I have faxed back," says Kevin Rennie, an attorney and former state representative from Windsor who finds it hard to get away from his one-man law firm. "I went on a trip to Hungary in April and as a very earnest Hungarian politico was explaining politics in Budapest, I was writing a memo to my office of things I was certain no one else would think of. I once had a phone bill in London, all calls back to my office, that came close to the cost of the room."It doesn't sound relaxing, but Highland consultants say if you really are so indispensable -- and Sewitch wonders if anyone really is, particularly given the number of can't-do-without employees who end up getting downsized -- the Highland Program offers this commonsense advice before going on vacation:* Make a checklist of current projects and action that should be taken if problems arise while you're away.* Empower someone to make decisions within limits you set, so nothing has to be put on hold in your absence.* Let your boss know what work should be done while you're gone and make sure people who report to you know what they should be working on.* If you must work on holiday, make sure you schedule a (preferably brief) time to do it and let your loved ones know when quitting time is. Then quit on time.* Most importantly, let everyone know that this vacation is important to you and encourage them to leave you alone.We might suggest going to a place so remote that there are no telephones. Unless you're the president, it's unlikely the world will collapse in your absence -- and, remember, even Bill Clinton takes a vacation.

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