Two days from now, my husband and I are taking a vacation—the first vacation we’ve had since January. As I’ve been getting ready for it, I’ve been thinking about how when I was in the early years of law practice, I would never take my vacation time. Sure, I always said I would, but somehow at the end of the year I’d have more than two weeks of leftover vacation time, some of which I couldn’t carry over and was lost forever. Usually around the end of every year, I would also become so routinely exhausted that my body would break down and I would get very, very sick.
As my career advanced, I began to notice that junior associates I mentored, many of whom who were regularly working 90 hour weeks, planned vacations over and over again only to agree to cancel them at the last minute when a senior partner raced into their offices asking if they were available to work on what was always an immediately urgent project. These same associates were often in tears in my office two weeks later, exhausted and unable to understand why they couldn’t hold it together at work.
The reason for their burnout and mine was fundamentally simple: we weren’t getting rest when we needed it. Lawyers at big firms are comparable to high performance athletes. We push our bodies and brains to the limit routinely, and do so for long hours. We are subjected to extreme stress. We don’t do, however, what high performance athletes know they MUST do in order to stay in the game: take mandatory rest breaks.
In a recently published study on workplace resiliency in the face of acute job stress, The Human Performance Institute compared acute workplace job stress to stress experienced by those in combat situations in the military, and noted the following: “When there is prolonged energy expenditure without breaks, the body ultimately responds with a backlash of forced recovery. Referred to as the parasympathetic backlash, this typically takes the form of overwhelming weariness, exhaustion, sleepiness and disengagement.” Not to mention tears and physical illness.
You can see where I am going with this: as with any other high performing individual under stress, if you as a lawyer do not take your vacation time, your physical and mental health, your interpersonal relationships and your work performance will suffer. We all need to start thinking of our vacations as mandatory time we gift to ourselves in order to preserve and support our own well-being, and not as optional time that we will take when and if we can get around to it.
I’m going to talk in this blog in the coming weeks about the importance of saying no in the workplace, and how to do so gracefully so that you maintain appropriate boundaries around your working and personal lives. However, we can start with this boundary right now: for your own sake, and the sake of your job, you MUST schedule your vacation time and take it. Here’s some strategies for making sure that you do.
1) Block out your vacation time at least six weeks in advance, and get permission from your supervisors to take it. Of course, to maintain workplace harmony, you don’t want to schedule your vacation during a trial or a deal closing, or when you have a major impending deadline. However, once you have blocked out an appropriate time, asking for permission to take your vacation time as scheduled is key. This is your first insurance that your time will be protected, because the consent of your supervisors puts them on notice that you will be taking your time off as planned.
2) Two weeks in advance, remind your supervisors and co-workers of your vacation dates, and advise your client contacts of when you will be away. This is also of critical importance, because it overcomes forgetfulness in the face of workplace stress and puts clients and co-workers on notice that you will not be in the office during your scheduled time.
3) Three days before your vacation, go through your workload and assigned tasks, and update your supervisors and co-workers on what will be completed in advance of your vacation and what may need to be covered while you’re gone. Contact clients on any outstanding important issues. This demonstrates to those to whom you are accountable that everything is under control, and also alleviates fear that things may slip through the cracks while you’re away. If necessary, talk to others assigned to your case or deal to make sure that someone is available to take calls on a given matter in your absence while you’re away. Inform your secretary to whom those calls should be directed, and make sure to set up your out-of-office voicemail greeting before departure informing callers to contact your secretary for redirection of urgent matters while you are away.
4) If a last minute assignment arises, SAY NO. I know for many of you this is harder than it sounds. Be brave, do it gracefully and without getting angry, but say no. “I’m sorry, but I have a vacation that’s been scheduled for six weeks, and I won’t be able to handle this matter. Can it wait until I get back?” is a good place to start. If it can’t, work with your supervisor or co-worker if necessary to find another attorney who can handle it. Resist the guilt trip. And I will let you in on a little secret: there is ALWAYS someone else who can do the job, even on a case or a deal to which you are assigned. If you suddenly became incapacitated, your firm would find a way to handle the assignment; it can do so while you are on vacation as well. Stand firm, let the assignment go, and don’t feel guilty. You have earned your vacation time, and you deserve to take it.
5) Limit your screen time on vacation—including your blackberry. The reasons for this are obvious: if you do not disengage from the office, you will not be getting your needed rest, nor will your family or significant other have the full attention from you on vacation that they doubtless want and need. I suggest to clients that they check email a maximum of once a day on vacation, and that they inform their co-workers, clients and supervisors by email before their departure that they will “endeavor to check email once a day in the morning,” or whatever time slot works best. Then, I suggest that they set up their email Out-Of-Office assistant to inform senders of this plan whenever an email is received.
As we all know, however, sticking to the once-a-day email plan can be harder than it looks. If you are one of those folks who have found yourself checking work email from a beach in Greece while your spouse snarls at you that the next time you check it, that blackberry is going into the ocean, more extreme measures may be required. I have gone so far as to advise clients who have issues with putting down the blackberry on vacation to seek out locations that have no blackberry coverage whatsoever. This is not as scary, nor causes such adverse consequences at work, as you might expect. For three consecutive years every March when I was a senior associate, for instance, I went to a small peninsula in the South of Costa Rica that I knew had no blackberry or cell coverage whatsoever. Others in my firm went backwoods camping to achieve the same ends. One went as far as Mount Kilimanjaro. Somehow, despite any panic that we may have felt about this initially, our firms and clients managed to survive without us, and we managed to survive without our blackberries—in some cases for up to three weeks at a time. It is incredibly liberating to know that we don’t need to be plugged in 24/7—others are competent and capable and can pick up the slack when we are gone. (Note to those uber-high achievers: this does not make you any less necessary, or any less important. It does, however, save your sanity.)
Complete and open communication is once again the key to making this work. If you are going somewhere without blackberry coverage, you must inform those you work with of this fact, and also leave a landline number for emergency purposes, even if the landline requires a Park Ranger to hike out and find you. I left a landline number each time I was in Costa Rica, with a note that it might take up to three hours for the message to reach me. No one ever saw the need to use it, and I returned each time more refreshed and relaxed than I thought possible.
So take your vacation! Take all of it. Map it out throughout the year so you are able to take those necessary “rest breaks” that will improve your performance, your health and your personal life. And let me know how it goes.
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