Working while on vacation? You might live to regret that

Don Spetner on finding the right work-life balance and knowing when to truly unplug from work

During my headhunter days, I helped recruit the CCO for Yahoo. It was a difficult search, as the company was going through a CEO transition, its business model was under attack, and we struggled to find the right candidates.

I mostly remember lots of tension and stress during the process, but there was one small, pleasant moment that has always stuck with me. I sent an email to Yahoo’s head of human resources, briefing her on a potential candidate we felt might be a good fit.

Instantly, an out of office reply arrived that was unlike any I had seen before. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it said something to the effect of: "I’m on vacation until August 24 and will be sitting by the beach sipping a Mai Tai with a tiny umbrella in it, so I will not be responding to you." It then went on to offer an appropriate contact person if I needed help.

I was deeply impressed. Here was the chief human resources officer of a major organization sending a clear message that not only is it OK to take a break, but it is also fine not to feel obligated to work on vacation.
What a concept.

I contrast her out-of-office message with a memory from a family vacation I once had in Mexico. In this flashback, I am sitting in the kitchen of a beach house while my wife and kids are out in the water.

I, however, am dialed into a two-hour teleconference. I keep replaying the scene of me gazing longingly at a shimmering ocean while my two little boys romp in the sand without me. It is a beautiful and sad moment.

I’m sure I was on that conference call because someone more important than me had created the meeting. Therefore, I was on the call out of fear and guilt. While the subject matter was important, it certainly wasn’t a crisis that needed my immediate attention. But I didn’t feel comfortable declining the call request, and I felt guilty being on vacation and not working.

So instead of simply sending a polite note saying I couldn’t make it because of my vacation, I instead deducted two hours of life with my family that I will never get back.

Years later, I joined a new firm and my boss set a call to introduce me to her team. In the awkward opening moments of the call, we made small talk while waiting for some others to dial in. During the few moments of banter, one participant described how she was on vacation with her family, and was gazing out the window at a mountain range in Colorado.

I wanted to scream at her to get off the call. I was particularly troubled that the reason she was interrupting her vacation was to be introduced to me. The memory of sitting in Mexico came rushing back, and I vowed I would never succumb to that pressure again.

I now wonder how much of my missed vacation time was due to expectations from my employer, and how much was self-imposed. I wish I could have been more like the woman at Yahoo and set clear boundaries around vacation.

But I felt compelled to be available, and while it may have helped my career, I also paid a big price for it.

I suspect Millennials have a better perspective on setting boundaries between work and private life. And I know that many employers now do a great job of respecting paid time off. But I never quite got it, and so I’m forever doomed to remember the image of my kids frolicking in the Sea of Cortez without me.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com

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