It always used to be that on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, almost everyone left early--if they went in to work at all. But as Paul Newman looked around his office at Oppenheimer Funds in Manhattan on that day last year, he saw a lot more people at their desks than he had in the past.
"Typically we'd have a fair amount of senior associates and executives extending the holiday weekend. We're just not seeing that," he says. He's an assistant vice president for human resources, so he notices these things. "Employees want to impress their bosses by limiting their vacation time."
Employees have watched their colleagues get laid off, and they've read the unceasing reports of downsizing practically everywhere; as a result, many are too scared or feel too guilty to take their allotted vacation time. Instead of recharging in a hammock or at the beach, they're putting their heads down and concentrating on the heftier workload they've had since so many of their colleagues were let go--and they're hoping their bosses notice.
"I hear a lot of guilt from people about the idea of taking off for a few days," says Eric Winegardner, a vice president at Monster.com. "They say they're grateful just to have their jobs."
But if you are now doing more work without additional compensation, time off isn't just a luxury, it's a necessity. "If employees don't take adequate time to recharge their batteries, they can exhaust themselves," Newman says, "which can lead to health-related issues and making silly mistakes."
There are ways to take vacation while keeping the guilt to a minimum. Many people say they don't start feeling completely relaxed until they've already been out for a full week. But if that's not an option, consider taking long weekends instead.
If your company frowns on employees being totally cut off from the office, see if you can set up specific times when you'll be available to talk with your boss, team and clients or answer e-mails. Mornings generally make the most sense; you can participate in a conference call and then get on with your vacation. As for e-mail, specifically mention in your out-of-office message when you'll be checking it each day.
If you'll be away for a week or more, be sure to find someone on the team who can be the point person for questions on your jobs and projects. Offer to fill in for them when they go on vacation. Or, Newman recommends, delegate some tasks to junior members of your team. That's a way to give them responsibility that can begin to prepare them for an eventual move up the corporate ladder. Let your boss and other teammates know exactly who will handle what.
"You want to build internal bench strength," Newman says. "It's a way you can recharge your batteries and develop junior staffers at the same time."
Avoid taking time off when your boss goes on vacation, since his or her absence can be an opportunity for you to shine. Meet with the boss before his or her vacation and ask if there's anything you can take the lead on.
When you do take time off, give your manager a reason why. For instance, you might say, "My daughter is graduating from college in California, so the family is traveling for that, and then we're adding a few extra days for a family vacation." Or, "I'd like to take the week off to go to the shore with my family, so I can spend some quality time with my wife and kids."
While you're away from the office, don't dwell on what's going on there. "Be mentally disciplined, and stay focused on the vacation," says Baird Brightman, an organizational psychologist who is president of Worklife Strategies, in Sudbury, Mass. "When you start to obsess or worry about work, you need to say to yourself, 'My purpose now is to be on vacation.' Refocus your attention on the present."
Remember, you've earned it.