It’s August — a time for vacationing, and also for the tradition of lamenting how bad Americans are at vacationing.
There’s some truth to these laments, especially in the past few years, as the rise in remote work during the pandemic has further blurred the separation between work and personal life. Despite most Americans’ relatively paltry vacation allotments, we leave billions of dollars’ worth of paid vacation days on the table. And when we do take time off, we struggle to relax: A 2022 survey of over 20,000 professionals found that 54 percent of people said they weren’t sure they could fully “unplug from work” while taking paid time off.
This vacationing failure has consequences: Some research suggests that being a “work martyr” who doesn’t take time off or works through a vacation isn’t good for work performance. Of course, it’s not so great for people personally, either, increasing stress and the risk of burnout. Some companies are going so far as to mandate that employees take time off — a measure that is perhaps only necessary in a culture where people feel guilty for not being at work, and then feel ashamed of working when they should be relaxing.
“Maybe we can blame the Puritans,” Emma Goldberg wrote recently in The Times. “Those settling in America in the 17th century thought idleness was sinful, and a six-day workweek sensible.”
But is enforcing the binary between work and time off, sharpening those blurred boundaries, the only solution? I don’t think so. Particularly for those of us who enjoy our work, if you can’t — or, let’s face it, won’t — disconnect from work on vacation, let me assure you: It is probably OK. Work is no worse a way to spend vacation downtime than watching TV or perusing Instagram — and creative work can sometimes even be a welcome break from the chaos of a family vacation.
It is also OK, however, to take little vacations during working hours. An hour outside reading a novel, an afternoon bike ride, lunch with a friend, leaving the office (or desk at home) a little early to shop for and cook a special dinner: If you’re thoughtful and intentional about it, dispensing with strict boundaries between work and the rest of life can make a fuller, less burned-out life possible.
Alexis Grant, a West Virginia-based entrepreneur, told me that she and her husband regularly take time out of their workday to hike — frequent shorter strolls, and a two-to-three-hour hike together once a week. The conversations they have on them also have a work value, she says: “We call them our Genius Hikes because we often end up helping each other with work challenges.”
Then they sometimes work in the evenings, she says, but that’s fine — you can’t easily hike in the dark, but you can go over a spreadsheet at 9 p.m. Thinking of the latter as problematic, or as a harbinger of burnout, doesn’t make sense if it enables the former.
Laptops and cellphones have been seen as the culprits in our always-on culture, especially for those, like me, who can work anywhere with a Wi-Fi signal. But they have also allowed for work flexibility in some professions that many, especially parents, have welcomed. When I did a time diary study in 2013 and 2014 of women who had professional jobs and kids at home, about half said they worked what I call a “split shift” — leaving work on the early side to spend time with their children, then doing work at home at night after the kids went to bed. Moving work around in terms of where and when it is done made it more possible for these women to have a big career and a meaningful family life. Men don’t talk about this time shifting as much, but some do it too.
Covid and the rise in remote work accelerated this trend, especially in management, business, financial and professional occupations. But while many appreciate the new flexibility in their daily lives, and some enjoy having the ability to take a “workcation,” the bleeding of work into vacation hours has caused a lot of angst about the difficulty of “unplugging.”
Do we need to fully unplug in order to relax? I hope we can begin to understand that, for many, work is a collection of tasks, not a collection of hours in a certain place. And time is a finite resource, but one that cannot always be neatly divided into “work time” and “free time.” Taking time for yourself during the work day doesn’t make you lazy, and working a bit on vacation doesn’t make you a workaholic. Dispensing with strict time boundaries should also mean ditching the guilt you might feel for either.
Loosening up the vacation vs. work binary opens up possibilities for living in new ways. Karen Raraigh, a Baltimore-based genetic counselor with a focus on research, gets a generous quantity of vacation days each year. But as with many professionals, her specialized projects won’t move forward in the same way if she’s not tending them — and she finds these projects quite meaningful.
“I like the work I do,” she told me. “The fact that I do a little work on vacation makes me feel a little better about taking more of it.” Her family spends multiple weeks visiting extended family in Maine, but she sometimes holes up for an afternoon to manage work matters while relatives play with her kids.
There is a difference, of course, between checking email in your Airbnb before everyone wakes up and being that guy on a Zoom call in the line for Space Mountain. As with most things, time flexibility can go too far, and you have to know yourself and your disposition. It’s one thing to choose to work on vacation, and another when your manager or your unreasonable workload forces you to work. Likewise, if you find that allowing for personal tasks or excursions during the work day means you never get anything done, then stricter separation might be the way to go.
But if doing some work at the beach means you can be at the beach for two weeks instead of one, and moving work time around means you can play with your kids in the afternoons and still keep your clients happy, then those blurred boundaries might be working to your advantage.
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