Work-Life Balance and the Lost Art of the Vacation

I just read a short piece in the World at Work Newsline summarizing a study about the number of Americans who will be working while on vacation.You know the drill: pack up your smartphone and bring your laptop along so you can "occasionally" check on what's happening. The study, by TeamViewers, and conducted by Harris Interactive of 2,000 respondents, shows that 38 percent plan to check email, while another 30 percent will take work-related calls.

Not all of this is by choice. Some employees are being told to work. And the TeamViewers study reports that lots of people don't like it. Some (34 percent) would be merely unhappy, but do the work anyway. Others (22 percent) would just say no. Either way, you can only imagine what this does to morale.

What is the impact on the family?

This is something I'm thinking about as I consider my last vacation "hurrah" of the summer. While my colleagues in Atlanta are saying goodbye to summer (their kids are going back to school next week), my family still has several weeks before school. Up here in the northeast, August is still school-vacation time and my family is planning a trip out to the San Juan Islands up in Washington state.

If you haven't been to the San Juan Islands, let me tell you about them. They're beautiful - remote, peaceful. Once you get there (by ferry) and then go up one of the mountains (to start your vacation) you are out of range. Getting a signal takes real effort. But I think about that TeamViewers study and I ask myself the question, will I drive back down into town to check emails or take a call? Last year I confess that I did (but I was in the middle of an important project!).

This year, I ask myself Do I really need to do this?

To her credit, my boss would say no. She would insist that I should go on vacation and not check  in. But planning before I leave so thoroughly that I can be "off the grid"...that seems harder (and more stressful) than driving toward a wi-fi signal. And the idea of coming back to a pile of emails? That makes it feel like it would be easier to a) not go, or b) take a trip to the moon (and really not be able to communicate). So option c - work a little while on vacation - seems like a much better idea.

Still, my family is not happy when the "work mom" intrudes on family time. And frankly, that "work mom" persona clings to me even after I am finished working. One woman at work calls this the vacation rabbit hole. You start by reading an email, and then respond and following up, and suddenly you're on a working vacation rather than on vacation while doing a little work.

Rethinking our vacations

This may be something we need to think about. A 2012 study by Expedia showed that Americans aren't using the small amount of vacation time that they have. In 2012, they used only 10 of the 12 vacation days available to them (dramatically different from the month most Europeans take off). And many U.S. employees are working on those vacations, too.

So I want to know, for those people who don't work on vacation, how do they do it? Do they just go? Is there a magic trick? Are the rest of us just thinking we're too essential to be out of reach?

I'll throw the question out to you, readers. If we don't want to work, and don't want to be asked to work, why do we use precious vacation time to do some work? And what steps do you take to get away and have a real vacation with your family and friends?

I'll let you know how I did when I'm back from the San Juan Islands.

Happy vacation!

Written by: Andrea Wicks Bowles

About the Author

Andrea Wicks Bowles at Bright Horizons

As Senior Consultant, Director Global Initiatives, Horizons Workforce Consulting, Andrea works with Bright Horizons clients to enhance the effectiveness of their employees and strengthen their position as an employer of choice. Her knowledge of global child care policies, organizational effectiveness, and work/life industry trends combined with analytical skills is used to help clients uncover their unique issues and challenges. Andrea, a frequent speaker at work/life conferences, is a key contributor to Bright Horizons' research investigations.