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Use Your Vacation Time—and Feel Good About It

Feeling guilty about taking vacation is common, but that doesn't make it healthy. Use your vacation time to recharge and pursue personal interests, and you'll come back to work better than ever.

By Rebecca Hawk

Association professionals are often responsible for more than one function, and there always seems to be something else to do at the end of the workday. When you believe your office truly can't run without you, vacation might seem like a foreign concept. As it turns out, you're not alone; workers across various sectors feel the same.

Why Don't We Use Our Vacation Time?

In a 2016 study from Project Time Off, researchers found that the average U.S. worker gained an extra day of paid time off (PTO) compared to the prior year but actually used less vacation overall.

Employees cited various reasons for skipping vacations, from the prospect of facing a pile of work upon their return to the costs associated with getting away to the feeling that things will fall apart if they're not in the office. The main source of stress, though, was supervisors' attitudes—whether actual or perceived—toward vacation time.

Sherry Marts, career coach and consultant to associations and nonprofits, has clients looking for ways to cope with workplace cultures that place unreasonable demands on employees.

"There is this insidious myth of the ideal worker—the employee who never needs down time and spends every waking hour on the job. When you work in a culture rooted in that myth, there is the constant stress of 'should,'" says Marts. "'I should be working more hours. I should be constantly checking in. I shouldn't take a vacation. I should be able to get it all done.' No one can work that way and still do their best work. Even machinery needs periodic maintenance. When did we decide human beings don't?"

Get the Most out of Your Vacation

Ideally, you'll use your vacation to relax, unplug, and truly recharge. Research has found that taking vacation time leads to better overall life satisfaction, increased creativity, and improved health [PDF], among other benefits. Satisfied, creative, healthy workers are typically top contributors, so you can rest easy knowing that your time away from the office is doing your organization a favor in the long run.

When you're ready to take time off, try these strategies to maximize the benefits:

Ensure staff coverage at the office. Put a clear plan in place for coverage while you're out so that your members and fellow staff feel supported instead of hung out to dry. Make sure to set an out-of-office message on your voicemail and email directing people to one or more colleagues. You'll be confident that your organization will survive without you, and you'll build trust with your colleagues.

Even machinery needs periodic maintenance. When did we decide human beings don't?

—Sherry Marts

Experience and express gratitude. While you're away, take time to reflect on what and who you've been grateful for over the course of the year. Write thank you notes to colleagues, friends, and family.

Map out your next year, or month, or week. Never got around to scheduling that dentist appointment? Still haven't checked out that yoga studio down the street? Get out your calendar and start making plans. "While you're at it, make some appointments with yourself," Marts suggests. "Consciously set aside time for reflection and planning once a quarter."

Open your mind to new ideas. Pick up a book from an author in a genre you don't usually read, try out a new podcast, or grab the most recent issue of a magazine you've never read before. You'll likely be exposed to some trends and news you haven't considered before that may spark new ideas. "Take some time to explore a different culture or a topic that has caught your interest," says Marts. "I know an agricultural economist who spends some of his vacation time volunteering on coral reef preservation and restoration projects in the Caribbean. In addition to pursuing a personal passion, he's learned new approaches to managing culturally diverse teams under challenging conditions."

Create a new habit. Away from your usual routine, you may find it easier to start a new one by setting aside time for daily meditation. Meditation can be extremely beneficial to your mindset and performance at work by increasing creativity, focus, and mindfulness. Even if you don't recite a mantra, you'll benefit from the space to reflect in solitude.

Learn a new skill. If there's something you've been wanting to learn—from HTML to brushing up on a second language—take your free time to immerse yourself for a few hours.

In addition to the personal benefits you'll experience, making the most of your vacation can empower you professionally.

"Even if you can't make an immediate change in your workplace culture, you can consciously change how you respond to it, instead of automatically reacting," says Marts. "Pay attention to the recurring thoughts and habits that prevent you from setting boundaries and saying no. When you recognize the patterns that keep you stressed, you can interrupt them and choose to do something different."

When you spend your time off conscientiously, instead of worrying about work and constantly checking in, you'll likely return recharged and ready to work toward your goals. And chances are, when you shift your own attitude toward time off, your colleagues—and your organization's leaders—will take note.

Rebecca Hawk is the marketing specialist for Association CareerHQ at ASAE Business Services, Inc. Email: [email protected]

Career Development