For everyone out there who hoards vacation days until it's too late to use them, and then brags about it in the office, I say "Stop the madness!" You're promoting a dangerous urban legend -- the office super hero, who works tirelessly throughout the week, after hours, on weekends, on the most high-profile projects. Too busy to take a day off, too high on stress to see the effects in the mirror.
Stop. Breathe. Cry if you need to. And then schedule some time off.
And while you're off, think about the path you're on. While managers notice and appreciate employees who put in extra time and effort for special projects, an employee who consistently needs to work evenings and weekends to get the job done can be the sign of a problem. To be fair, the problem may be that the workload is too demanding. The other option is that the problem is you.
As chief human resources and citizenship officer for a large company, I've seen what happens to employees who don't cultivate a life outside the workplace. It's only a matter of time before long hours and limited outside perspective strips them of their creativity, their problem-solving skills, and even their health.
I think the first time I heard the term "work/life balance" was in the 1980s. It was something that women were striving to achieve by balancing work with responsibilities at home. Thirty years later, both men and women are looking for ways to even out the scales. But, I don't think this is merely an issue of striking a balance between "work" and "life." There aren't just two facets to our lives. Effectively managing the multiple dimensions of ourselves will help us thrive and feel good about our journey.
So why are so many of us stockpiling vacation days off and burning out at work? According to one study, the United States has earned the dubious distinction of the No-Vacation Nation, compared with other industrialized nations. It may be that our culture and our economic climate contribute to the feeling that we have to work long hours to prove our value and get ahead. Ironically, it's this very mindset that may end up costing you your job, your health, your sanity, or all three. Research shows that taking breaks alleviates stress, reduces errors and improves the quality of work.
So take some time off and use it to develop a new plan:
- Get a life. Challenging work can be attractive and compelling to the point of distraction for some. Make sure your life outside the office is equally compelling and attractive. Take time away from work to devote to friends, family and interests that inspire you -- it will make your work more interesting and meaningful, and the satisfaction you get from work will make your time away more enjoyable as well.
- Get away. Multitasking is not productive. While it may feel like we're able to get more done by doing several tasks at once, it turns out that dividing our attention seriously diminishes the quality of our efforts. There's a reason our best ideas often come to us in the shower, during our morning commute, our even in our dreams. Solitary time allows our minds to mull things over and work them out, even if we aren't consciously trying. Taking a break, getting a change of scenery or doing something unexpected doesn't just clear our minds; it can lead to unexpected insights.
- Get healthy. Eating right, exercising and getting enough rest is exactly what you need to be your best at work and home. Carve out time to create healthy eating and exercise habits and make sure you get enough sleep. Getting by on too little sleep can negatively affect your productivity, mood and health. (Find out: How much sleep do I really need?)
If you are devoting almost all your attention to the "work" dimension of your life, schedule some time off to recharge. And while you're at it, develop a plan that will allow you to be more balanced, productive and content in all aspects of your life. That way, when you come back to work refreshed, you'll be promoting a different kind of office super hero -- balanced, healthy, and ready to take on the world.