Two weeks ago I was on vacation. It was my first week off since Christmas.
The longer I go without a vacation, the longer the vacation needs to be for me to benefit from it.
So this year I took two-ish weeks off.
The first week I was at home, working at about 15% of my normal load, taking care of things like doctor’s appointments and car repairs, with lots of time for Zoom calls with long distance friends.
I pumped the breaks on work, gradually stepping back over 5 days to help my nervous system and brain slow down and disconnect from screens.
The goal: to be fully present and enjoy the second week of vacation at a house in the woods with my family.
And not to get sick.
In the past, I’ve jammed on the breaks to take a week off.
And for years, I crashed. Hard.
Not only would I spend the first few days of my vacation tired AND wired, but by mid-week I almost always got sick. My body knew it was a “good” time to fall apart.
Years later, I know I need to pump the brakes ahead of time, so that I can enter my “real” vacation healthy enough to benefit from it.
Which I did earlier this month.
And I STILL slept 8 hours a night and took an hour long nap every afternoon. I had no idea I was so tired.
But I’m not surprised. 2020 has been one problem, heartache, emergency, and horror after another.
We are all tired.
And most of us aren’t taking enough time to rest (for lots of reasons).
We have a troubled relationship with vacation time in America. In 2018, 768 million US vacation days went unused.
That’s in a “normal” year. Who knows what it will look like in 2020?
Recently, I gave a webinar for a shelter and the staff shared privately that they felt like they were being judged (by leadership and peers) for wanting to take their designated breaks and vacation time.
They were trying to take care of themselves, but didn’t feel psychologically safe enough to do it.
That’s a good example of how individual self-care can only take root when it’s supported by workplace culture and policies.
I’ve also spoken to a number of shelter workers lately who feel that because they or their staff had a month off in March or April (due to COVID), they “shouldn’t” need a vacation now.
I disagree. Here’s why:
1. Being furloughed or laid off isn’t a vacation. It’s time off, but it’s unplanned, maybe even unpaid, and it was at the start of a traumatic global pandemic.
My husband was laid off for 7 months this past year (starting before COVID). And while I was definitely envious of his (partially) paid time off, I also knew that being involuntarily out of work was not a vacation for him, it was stressful.
Furloughs and layoffs = uncertainty = stress.
2. One break a year isn’t enough. March was 6 months ago. We’re due for another rest. Why do we (I’m looking at us Americans) think we only need one vacation a year? How has that been working for us so far?
Most EU countries are required to offer a minimum of 20 paid days off annually. That allows for multiple weeks off a year. America? We’re not required, federally, to offer even ONE paid day off a year. No wonder so many people can’t take time to rest. It’s a choice between vacation and paying rent.
Fortunately, many employers do offer some paid time off. But we’re not using it.
Why? Because we feel like it’s not safe – either because of our workplace culture or because our nervous systems are so jacked up on stress from working 51 weeks straight that trying to slow down is physically painful for us.
3. This year has not been business as usual. Wildfires, COVID, racial violence, a contentious election, and who knows what’s next (fingers crossed for an asteroid-free fall!)? When stress is this high, for this long, we need to double down on our rest.
People need to “come off the front lines” for regular, extended R&R, so they don’t burn out.
Even Mother Teresa understood this. Rumor has it she recommended that her nuns take an entire year off every 4-5 years to allow themselves to heal from the effects of their caregiving work.
Surely we can figure out a way to let our people take regular time to heal too? We cannot expect them to keep going like this without consequences. At a minimum we’re looking at high turnover and a reduction in the quality of services being offered.
When I got back from vacation my energy was restored. Yes, it felt a little weird to take a vacation when the world is in crisis. But stepping back helps me to keep stepping up.
After vacation I’m excited about supporting others this fall because I’m operating from a surplus, instead of a deficit.
You know, we’re spreading more than just COVID right now. We’re spreading our emotions, our stress, our perspective on the world.
When you’re well-rested, it ripples out to positively impact every life you touch. So do it for yourself or do it for those you care for, but please: take a break.
Look, I know it’s complicated with small staffs and small budgets, not to mention layoffs looming, but I hope you’ll at least consider it.
Or talk with your people (or yourself!) about how it’s OK to take a vacation in a pandemic, even if they had time off in the spring.
And if you’re pushing your staff (or yourself!) to work even harder right now and they haven’t had a break in months, just beware.
ZOMBIES are coming.
Your work – your organization’s services – will benefit from having well-rested humans who can show up with energy and enthusiasm again.
It’s a win-win for everyone, including the animals.