Out of Office: 5 Tips for Rethinking Vacation Time

When my brother Charlie called me from New York City last summer to tell me he was feeling burnt out, the first thing I asked him was what’s going on. Turns out a lot: not only was his team at his (already demanding) finance job understaffed, but he was up for VP at his next promotion cycle. Okay, reasonable, I told him. The second question I asked was how long it had been since he took a proper vacation. The answer? Nearly a year. BINGO.

I told him something I consider to be a cardinal rule: “you’re not allowed to say you’re burnt out when you haven’t taken a vacation.”

Turns out Charlie isn't alone. According to the US Travel Association’s 2018 State of American Vacation, while we are increasingly using our vacation time a staggering 52% of Americans will leave vacation time unused this year.

I'm back from 10 days of PTO and I’m not just feeling refreshed: I have a level of clarity about my top priorities at work and at home (and how I want to manage those concurrently). It’s a level of clarity that I haven’t had since I came back from maternity leave 5 months ago and something I didn’t even realize I was missing. I also have fresh ideas for achieving my goals.

As Memorial Day nears so does summer vacation season and it's not too late to carve out some time for yourself to recharge. Here are my five tips for rethinking your vacation time before summer comes and goes:

1. Paid time off is part of your compensation package, which makes taking it a win/win for you and your company. If you are lucky enough to have a job that includes paid time off (PTO), your vacation days are part of your compensation package. This makes the question simple: would you let part of your paycheck go unpaid? If you answered no then rethink your decision to leave some of your vacation days unused as well.

According to the US Travel Association, paid vacation is the second-most important benefit to employees after health care, and even ranks ahead of retirement plans, flexible work options, bonuses, and sick leave. As vacation time becomes more important to employees, companies are catching on too with what US Travel calls “more positive vacation culture.” My company FiscalNote, for example, actually offers a cash bonus to employees who take off 5 consecutive days of vacation a year, explicitly reinforcing that our vacation time is a paid benefit. Not only is vacation a paid benefit for employees but companies actually get a dividend in the form of happier, less stressed, and more engaged employees.

Copyright of US Travel Association “State of American Vacation 2018”

Copyright of US Travel Association “State of American Vacation 2018”

2. Make a good plan at the office before you leave it. One of the defining principles of paid time off is the "off" part. That means PTO is not constantly checking emails, joining calls, touching base with the office, or just doing errands. It's also why I recommend making a good plan for your time off starting 1-2 weeks in advance. There are three steps to this.

  • First: 1-2 weeks out plan how and when you are going to complete projects or project milestones before you leave.

  • Secondly and closer to your departure: write a PTO plan that you can share with your boss and any direct report(s) about what is tracking in your work world and any to-do's that should happen in your absence. This should include easy access to any documents, files, or contacts.

  • Lastly: schedule time to review that plan before you leave so you can address any questions.

In addition to the PTO plan itself I also try to keep my last day in the office and first day back lighter to wrap up and catch up. If you take the time to make a good plan there is no reason you can’t truly sign off for a week.

3. Don't underestimate the restorative power of stay-cations and long weekends. A few of the reasons Charlie hadn't taken that vacation was because his workload was heavy and he was (reasonably) concerned about optics during a promotion evaluation period. For other clients and peers I speak with—even if they can overcome Charlie’s barriers—they feel like their kids, pets, or finances make it tough. They’re not alone and all of these factor in as reasons why we’re leaving our vacation time unused.

Copyright of US Travel Association “State of American Vacation 2018”

Copyright of US Travel Association “State of American Vacation 2018”

That’s why some of the most restorative PTO I've taken in recent years has been stay-cations and long weekends in my hometown of Washington, DC. No childcare issues or logistics hassles required. Plus, I get to enjoy some of the best parts of my city, like the Smithsonian or the cherry blossoms, in a way I can’t always easily access on a weekend afternoon. It’s also budget-friendly, which brings me to tip #4…

4. Be budget savvy. When I first moved to DC my then-fiance-now-husband and I were living off his entry-level government salary while I finished grad school. We (literally) watched every penny. That's when we invented the "Fun Fund" which we still use to this day, nearly 10 years later. To budget for our vacations we took a small amount out of his paycheck and direct deposited it into a dedicated savings account. Those small contributions added up pay period after pay period and allowed us to take some really memorable vacations.

In addition to the money you are saving up, there are so many budget hacks hiding in plain sight on the internet. One of my favorites is Scott's Cheap Flights, which is where I found my tickets for last week’s trip to Malta for $450/person. My friend Lauren also turned me onto Travelzoo where I scored discounted MoMA tickets on my trip to New York City in January. Traveling costs money but special vacation experiences are accessible when you’re savvy about your budget.

5. Don’t wait until you’re burnt out. Like almost everything else at work there is immense benefit in being proactive vs. reactive, which was Charlie’s problem. He was being proactive about everything for his team, his projects, and his clients but when it came to himself he had waited until he was totally worn down to think about taking time off. We all know that people who go to the doctor for regular check-ups before they’re sick often live healthier lives. Planning a vacation before you “need it” can similarly go a long way in proactively managing your stress. In fact, while only half of Americans proactively plan their vacation time in advance, those who do consistently measure “happier” in every category the US Travel Association studied.

Copyright of US Travel Association “State of American Vacation 2018”

Copyright of US Travel Association “State of American Vacation 2018”

Look at your calendar right now for the next six months. Do you have PTO scheduled? To be clear: a day off for “command performances” like Aunt Betty’s 90th birthday or the kid’s science fair doesn’t count. I mean real time off. If not, put some time on before this weekend comes and goes. You’ll be glad you did and here’s why:

One of the key findings of the US Travel Association study was that after “analyzing how vacation time was spent, the data shows an unmistakably strong correlation between travel and happiness.” Just ask Charlie who did in fact get that promotion to VP, and who is reporting more days off and less stress despite all his increased responsibilities.