You Can Take It With You

Many Prefer Working Vacations to No Vacation at All<@VM>How to Take a Vacation

Charlene Wheeless

Brian Churchey

Before leaving for a 10-day vacation in Hawaii with her husband and two young daughters, Charlene Wheeless wrestled daily with the question: Should she take her laptop computer or leave it at home?

In the end, the laptop went along, and Wheeless, corporate director of public relations for DynCorp in Reston, Va., worked from two to eight hours a day.

"Checking voice mail and e-mail is a decision I made so my transition back into the office wouldn't be a nightmare," said Wheeless, who receives 60 to 100 e-mails a day.

Many workers are making the same choice Wheeless did, according to numerous studies showing that many U.S. workers don't leave the office behind when they take time off.

A recent poll of 3,000 workers found that 40 percent stay in touch with the office when on vacation. Twenty-two percent said their employers expect it, according to CareerBuilder Inc., a Reston, Va., career Web site. A survey of managers released last month by the New York-based American Management Association found that 26 percent of managers contact their offices every day while on vacation and two-thirds check in at least once a week.

"You never leave [work]," said S. Daniel Johnson, executive vice president of public services for KPMG Consulting Inc. in McLean, Va., who regularly checks voice mail and e-mail while on vacation.

"It's a matter of habit. If you don't, you're several days behind" when you return, he said.

It seems there's so much work to do that many workers can't use all their vacation days. An April survey of 544 full-time workers by travel Web site Expedia Inc. found U.S. employees get an average 14 vacation days a year, but only use 12.2 days. The majority said they were "too busy" to vacation, said Christina Kozloff, a product manager for Bellevue, Wash., Expedia.

Some people find it difficult to get away at all.

Ronald Saluzzo, a senior vice president at KPMG Consulting, said he postponed a 25th wedding anniversary trip to Europe four times. Finally, Saluzzo's wife said she was taking the trip with or without him. Saluzzo went.

Amy Palmer, an executive recruiter for Management Recruiters International Inc. in Mequon, Wis., said she can take a full week off only between Christmas and New Year's Day, a slow period for recruiters. Otherwise, she takes long weekends ? and her laptop.

"Things are really moving in Internet time," she said. "You can really miss opportunities if you are away from the office."

For instance, Palmer recently identified, interviewed and flew in a top candidate for a biotechnology job ? all within a week. She knew her client might make a job offer at the second interview.

"I need to be the person who makes that happen," she said. "I have somebody pinch-hit on pressing situations, but it's not the same as if I was here."

Wheeless used to have trouble taking time off. Even now, she's not sure how much vacation time she gets. It doesn't matter, because she'd never use all of it. But at least now she's using some of it.

"About three years ago, I started forcing myself to take a vacation. You can only get so strung out," she said.

Wheeless isn't the only one who has trouble taking vacations. Even though U.S. workers get less time off than workers in other industrialized nations, they often leave some vacation time unused. U.S. companies typically provide two weeks of vacation and increase time off with years served. In contrast, many European countries mandate vacation time ? typically four weeks a year for everyone, according to Hewitt Associates LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Lincolnshire, Ill.

"Europeans look at us and they laugh. We are a superpower, but we are super-stressed. And people aren't that happy," said Los Angeles psychologist Robert Butterworth.

Psychologist John Drake, author of "Downshifting: How to Work Less and Enjoy Life More," said it took him 20 years to realize there was more to life than work. The workplace consultant has left the
corporate world for a quieter life in Kennebunkport, Maine. Previously, as chief executive officer of human resources consulting firm Drake Beam Morin Inc., Drake rarely took more than a week off at a time.

"Looking back, I think that's really stupid," he said. "It's not that you don't know any better, but you get adapted to not taking the time."

Times haven't changed, according to the American Management Association. Its survey found that only 31 percent of managers plan to take off more than a week at a time this summer.

The slowing economy and the speed of technology make it particularly difficult to get away, Drake said.

"A lot of people tell me that taking vacation might be seen as being not so dedicated, and that they might be more vulnerable to a layoff," he said. "I don't know if that's so realistic, but that's what they think."

"Ten years ago, if you were gone a week, you might get some mail and faxes," Drake added. "Now you might get 20 e-mails that might be important. People fear a million things are going to happen, not just two."

Many workers think technology has ruined their vacations, Wheeless said, but she believes it has given her more freedom.

"I was having a good time solving issues by the pool with a Mai Tai in my hand," she said. "I'd rather be checking my e-mail from Hawaii than Virginia."

Wheeless and Brian Churchey, a human resources manager for TRW Inc. of Cleveland, said they want to check in with the office while they're on vacation.

"It's just my work ethic," said Churchey, who works in Washington. He recently returned from a six-week trip to Italy, where his wife was studying. Churchey checked in with his boss about once a week.

"That was strictly up to me," he said. "It was a comfort, knowing I could touch base and see if anything was going on."

Churchey usually takes just two weeks off at a time.

"People asked me, 'How did you get six weeks off?' I literally just asked," he said. "It was amazing to be able to take six weeks off and literally have no responsibilities."

It's important, Churchey said, that employers such as TRW not only provide enough vacation time, but that they make it possible for employees to use it.

"If you're not given the ability to take that time off, it's wasted. TRW encourages it," said Churchey, who is now covering for an employee taking a four-week trip to Costa Rica.

Churchey's trip notwithstanding, many workers will leave vacation time on the table at the end of the year. This summer, Compaq Computer Corp. for the first time took action that will ensure most employees take one summer break. The Houston computer manufacturer mandated that most of its 33,000 full-time U.S. workers take vacation the week of July 2. Because of a California legal decision, the company's 3,000 Silicon Valley employees weren't required to take the week off, but spokesman Steve Sievert said he expected most would.

"It achieves our objectives to be more competitive, encourage employees to take time off and better control the financial liabilities associated with vacation benefits," said Sievert, who noted that unused vacation time accrues on the company's books, resulting in a cost to the company.

Employees were looking forward to the week off, said Barbara Crystal, a senior public relations manager who was headed to Florida.

"We are all going 190 miles an hour," she said. "It's nice to be able to take a vacation and not worry. There will be people manning the help desks, but in essence it's a vacation for all of us."Months in advance

  • Set vacation dates.

  • Begin setting reasonable deadlines for yourself, so you don't get too stressed near vacation time.

Weeks in advance

  • Make arrangements with co-workers for your work to be covered while you're gone.

  • Delegate specific tasks to specific people.

  • Assign a trusted person to handle crises.

  • If gaps in your work coverage can't be resolved, take the coverage plan to your boss. This shows you are conscientious.

  • Three weeks before your vacation, start reminding co-workers on a weekly basis.

Days in advance

  • Program your e-mail, phone and pager to reply saying you are on vacation and will respond when you return. Give the name of an interim contact person.

  • Designate one primary contact so you don't get calls from everyone.

  • Create a specific time you'll be available while on vacation and stick to it.

  • Let bosses know that if you are on the clock, reimbursement is expected.

Sources: John Drake, Robert Butterworth

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