Why Even Workaholics Should Take Vacation

“Hi, my name is Mel and I’m a workaholic.”

“Hi, Mel.”

I don’t mean to make light of addiction, but work is pretty much the only thing I’m addicted to. There’s something so inherently rewarding to me in doing work well that I get a bit of a high when it happens. I work so hard to get that feeling that I succeed, which results in me being assigned more challenging tasks. Then I have to work harder to feel the same sense of accomplishment, the same high. It’s a cycle that can drag you downward into a spiral, until you’re burnt out and a frazzled shell of your former self.

Thank goodness for vacation.

I’ve been working for more than 20 years and I don’t think I’ve left a single day of vacation on the table. Not when I started as an administrative assistant and not now as I’ve moved into leadership. Left to my own devices, I very well might have. I can see myself finding reason after reason for why the work had to be done, why I couldn’t walk away for even a day. I’m an addict and I’m better at rationalizing work than most other people I know. Like most addicts, when I am explaining why the work has to be done — and why only I can do it — I am passionate, articulate and compelling. I am confident I would convince you.

But I can’t convince my husband.

It’s yet another thing in life that I stumbled into without any sort of planning. I didn’t pick a husband by intellectually saying, “Oh, he’ll provide great balance. He’ll make sure I ratchet back from 5th gear every once in a while. He’ll make sure I take my vacation.” Nope, I just got lucky.

Somehow over the 20 years we’ve been figuring out life together, I moved from just doing it because he made me to realizing that I don’t just like vacation, I need it. I need a chunk of time when the alarm doesn’t go off, when the responsibilities of driving progress is on someone else’s list. Not mine. It helps me recharge my weakened batteries and fight off the addiction cycle. I am fairly certain that if I hadn’t taken all my vacation when I was a newbie in my career I wouldn’t be taking it now as a leader. And in a country where they say people take half of the paid vacation they are entitled to that is a real problem.

Teams where leaders don’t take vacation set a tone that you can’t take time off and get ahead. It leads to burnt out teams and decisions not to invest in the systems and processes that reward cross-training and back-ups. If the world comes to a blazing stop when a leader is out of the office — if all paths go to one and only one person — then a team really isn’t a team. One of the reasons I love vacation is because I can send the message to my team that I trust them to take care of things without me. That I believe they have the training, judgement and competence to make decisions without me. And I believe that if they really do need me they will interrupt me quickly for a bounce or confirmation.

I believe that effective work teams, like those in sports, have to be prepared for people to sub out. No one can play all 60 minutes of a hockey game, no matter how good they are. And even if they could, they can’t do it and stay great. The best teams are capable of having someone out for a play or a game or a season and winning anyway.

So, take your vacation. Make sure your people take their vacation. Build your team embracing those self-healing capabilities not fighting them. For you and for everyone on your team.

Especially if you’re a workaholic, too.

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Middle-aged business exec who had aspirations of being a writer someday. I believe that lifting people up through authentic and vulnerable storytelling creates connection and possibility. My story may not be the most inspiring, but it is the one I know the best and have the right to share.

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