July 07, 2021

POV: Let's Talk Days Off

It’s time for us to have a serious conversation about taking time off. Now, I want each of you to be honest with yourself about these questions: 

  • When was the last time you took time off from work?  
  • When was the last time you checked your email, responded to email, and did work related tasks when you were technically ‘off the clock’? 
  • How do you react when others tell you about proposed vacations they have?   
  • How much PTO/vacation time do you have that needs to be used in this fiscal year?  
  • What is your organization’s policy on PTO/vacation? How much can you roll over, how do you request time, etc.?  

I pose these questions for a very real reason. I know that so many of us are not taking time off, we are accruing and even loosing PTO/vacation, and we are working after hours when we shouldn’t be. I also know that there are some who make others feel guilty for taking time off. And if you fall into any of the above categories–I hear you, I see you, I have been you.  

Let me be clear–we are nonprofit people. True to our nature, that means we live and breathe our missions. We are so dedicated to them that we are always working to advance our mission. And let’s also be clear that in Nonprofit Land there are some nonprofits that have missions that require 24-hour attention– suicide prevention, sexual assault response, respite care for families at all stages (including end of life), animal welfare and care, and many more. And this blog is not meant to belittle the care and attention we need to put into our work–it simply is a reminder that we possibly cannot show up for our missions, our families, our communities, and ourselves in the best way possible if we cannot be honest about what we need to re-charge, re-center, and live. Also, in this blog, I will also use time off, PTO and vacation synonymously.  

So let me dive right in–it’s time for you to take a vacation. Even if it’s just a stay-cation, a camping trip, or a plane ride to see family. It’s time. You deserve it. You need it. Your family needs it. Your team needs it. Your mission needs it. The people you serve need it.  

Here is my story of burnout, being overworked, losing PTO, and being grumpy.  

Before I came to lead UNA I had an official schedule of 4 ten-hour shifts. I often worked 5 days a week and checked and responded to email 7 days a week regardless of hour. This had been my norm for many years. And I hated it. I hated it because I worked all the time and I judged the people I worked with for their perceived lackadaisical approach to work. I hated it because I felt guilty for not ‘working’ 5 days a week in the office. And worse, I felt judged any time I booked a vacation. Now mind you, I have not ever had this conversation with my past Executive Directors so if you’re reading this (and you know who you are) know–it wasn’t you, it was me. 

It was with that guttural dislike of my work habits that I launched into this role at UNA and I made the conscious choice to do things differently. I decided that I was not going to work after work. As a new CEO, this took discipline then and takes discipline now. And what this means in practice is that I actively budget my time and make sure that I rarely work over 40 hours. I do, when necessary, but I don’t make it a habit. This frees me up to grab in a run before work or leave early to run (depending on the season). It allows me to spend more time in my garden and with family. And while I have excelled in the ‘no more than 40 hours’ business I hadn’t (until recently) addressed the vacation or email conundrum. I was still losing PTO (our policy allows rolling over 2 weeks and consistently I would lose 1 week at the end of each year). I was also still checking and responding to emails at all hours.  

Then the pandemic hit. And I made another conscious choice. I vowed to never again have unused PTO. And for the first time in years, I can say that I didn’t lose any in December and I am on track to use my PTO this year! In April of this year, I deleted my work email from my phone. This action took place because on the first day of my week-long stay-cation I spent the morning sitting in my rocking chair answering and reading emails.  

We are hearing a lot at UNA about how so many of you are burned out and are working too much. I know how hard it is out there. I know what it feels like to have the weight of the world resting on you. And it’s because of that that I know how critical it is to take time away. No one should feel guilty for using the employee benefits that are offered to them. No one should feel like they can’t step away from work. We deserve to live lives that we are happy to lead and have jobs that fuel that happiness.  

Here are some helpful hints and things each of you (depending on role) can do to lead out: 

For all employees: 

  • Look at your PTO balance–knowledge is power! 
  • Understand and learn organization’s PTO policy.  
  • Schedule some vacation days! Map out your time based on your fiscal year and make sure you use all of your vacation days! Leave nothing unused.  

For those in leadership: 

  • Encourage your staff to delete their work email from their phone when they are on vacation.  
  • Encourage your staff to delete their work email from their phone. Period. The end. Full stop.  
    • Unless someone is required to be attached to their email 24 hours a day and are being paid to read and respond then they do not need to be burdened with work on a Friday night, when they are drinking a glass of wine, enjoying a hike, caring for a loved one, or binge-watching Gentefied on Netflix.  
  • Schedule your own vacation and tell everyone on your team that you have done this.  
  • Delete your work email from your phone and tell your team you have done this. 
    • I did it. It was really hard at first and then it got easier. And now I am happier.  
  • At UNA we have what we call ‘Dark Weeks’. At the beginning of the year, we designate one week in the Spring and one week in the Fall as a time where NO UNA meetings or events take place. Staff can decide to either take their PTO during this time or work (uninterrupted). 
    • Wondering why its ‘use PTO or work’…? Speaking from experience, some feel guilty taking time off when there are meetings and events. This removes that guilty barrier.  

Not all of these suggestions work for everyone or fit everyone’s comfort level. Not all organizations can block out two full weeks so staff can take it easy. But chances are there are items from above that you can make happen immediately. And as leaders, we owe it to ourselves and our teams to lead out on the issue of reducing burnout, encouraging more work-life balance, and in general, reducing the guilt associated with taking a vacation. As leaders and decision makers, our staff follow our lead. So if we are not taking any time off and if we answer emails when we aren’t ‘on the clock’ then it sends them a signal that we expect them to do the same. Much of this is cyclical and it is up to each of us to begin to break this cycle. Happy scheduling and deleting.  

I want to hear from you. Have you implemented anything I suggested? Was it hard or easy? Do you just wish your boss would read this (I’ll happily and anonymously forward it to them)? Let's keep the conversation going.