It took me eight years from the time I started my logistics company until I took a real vacation. Sure, I took trips — I left the office, I traveled, I went places with my family — but I was always plugged in. I responded to emails, I sat in my hotel room at the resort while the rest of my family enjoyed themselves, reviewing financials or sitting on conference calls, and I was never completely disconnected. I wasn’t on vacation, I was just working remotely.
Because of this, I never understood why people had a hard time coming back after vacation. After all, working remotely is always a little more challenging than being in my office, where all my tools and equipment live, my internet is always fast, and I have a comfortable desk set up just the way I like it. Coming back from “vacation” always felt easier than being away.
But then I did it. I unplugged for a week. I went on vacation, didn’t check my email, didn’t take calls from the office, and didn’t participate in work. It was a revelation. I was relaxed. I didn’t look at my phone 700 times an hour. I didn’t feel like I was dividing my attention between my family and my business, and even though I was gone for a WHOLE WEEK, my business didn’t burn to the ground. (Ironically, this was during the terrible California wildfires of 2017, and I was traveling in Napa Valley, so my VACATION burned to the ground instead.) At the end of that week, I was a little reluctant to return, because I’d achieved a state of relaxation I had forgotten existed. But I did have a whole host of new, creative ideas that I brought back with me, because a relaxed mind is a more creative one.
Being fully unplugged for week, though, got me thinking. I realized a few very important things about how my behavior trickled down through the company I was running.
I was setting a bad example.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The speed of the leader determines the pace of the pack.” I was setting an unreasonable pace. My employees saw my workaholism, and felt they had to be workaholics, too. They were checking email during vacation time, making phone calls, sending texts, and generally not unplugging while they were away from the office.
I was burning people out.
We all need breaks from work. We need time to be away from the grind, to enjoy our families, and to relax. Without that, burnout isn’t just a risk, it’s a guarantee. My employees, who felt they could never fully separate from their work, were burning out. I had several who came to me for advice on how to recharge their batteries. My response — take some time off — was greeted with understandable skepticism, since they saw me continuing to plug along, never taking a break myself. They undoubtedly thought I was testing them in some way, trying to see if they were weak enough to fall into the trap they suspected I was setting.
I was burning people’s families out.
No one wants to go on vacation with a person who never looks up from their phone. No one wants to be at the beach, soaking up sun, while their significant other or parent is locked in a hotel room, banging out emails. The level of frustration my employee’s family members felt in these situations was increasing, and it was affecting our retention. When someone feels they can never get away and devote time to their personal life, they aren’t going to stay in a job very long. The pressure from home can be overwhelming — and understandable! — when your spouse is feeling neglected, or your kids feel like you are never present for them. We only have one life, and we need to spend it enjoying the people we love in addition to doing work we love.
I was violating my own ethics.
I honestly believe that work isn’t everything, and that my employees should be able to live healthy lives. They should be able to work for me AND go to the gym, go on vacation, sleep at night, take time off when their family needs them, etc. I believe that the work they do for me cannot and should not be their entire life, but my own approach to time off was demonstrating a clear violation of that belief. There was a huge gap between my words and my actions, and that was unacceptable to me as an ethical leader.
After realizing all these things, I knew something had to change.
I had to change.
It was obvious to me, after my (somewhat smoky) trip to California, that I had to make some serious changes in my own life and in my management style. I had to unplug more regularly, and I had to make it easier for my employees to do the same. So I sat down and talked with all my managers about how to better prepare for time off, to ensure that we have coverage on all our positions and to control our own impulses to fire off emails or texts when we have quick questions during someone’s vacation, rather than being patient, or finding the answers ourselves. We had to allow our folks time to not answer their phones, or check email, even if they were in a customer-facing role. We had to set boundaries and then respect them, or we were going to lose all our best people.
In the two years since that trip, I won’t say that I’ve been perfect — smart phones and a business partner who is not great at these sorts of boundaries make completely unplugging a challenge — but I’ve gotten better. And our processes for preparing for an employee’s vacation have gotten better, too, allowing even our salespeople to feel more confident that their accounts will be handled while they are gone. It is a work in progress, but at least we are making progress.
If you are a workaholic boss or founder, I’d encourage you to do a little soul-searching yourself. Look at your folks — are they taking all of their vacation days, and actually enjoying them? If they aren’t, examine yourself and your culture, and begin fixing what is obviously broken. Take time away, and set up all the processes and procedures necessary to make sure your employees can take time away, too. Honor the “off” in your paid time off.