Leading the way: Give me a break

Personal and professional success often leads to invitations for greater involvement and leadership opportunities in a range of projects, initiatives, organizations, boards and family activities.

This is all well and good, until you wake up one day and wonder where has your time gone, and why don’t you have more time for yourself.

Does this sound familiar: “If I can make it through this project, things will quiet down.”?

Or how about this: “Once the season is over, my schedule will lighten up it won’t be so hectic.”?

But then, when everything is said and done, you are no less busy and there is seemingly no end to the commitments for your time and talents. This is stress.

In an article in Psychology Today magazine titled “Fulfillment at Any Age,” Susan Krauss Whitbourne describes the deleterious effects of stress to include irritability, inability to concentrate, anxiety, memory deficiency leading to making poor decisions, feelings of isolation and depression, to name a few. These are not signs of a healthy employee.

However, one of the easiest and best things a person can do is simply take a break. And by taking a break, I’m suggesting two kinds — a long-term break, and a short-term break.

Let’s start with the long-term break, which is a bit more difficult to achieve. Simply put, this requires the conscientious reduction of long-term commitments such as volunteer work, boards of directors, civic and not-for-profit organizations, coaching, clubs and the like.

I know a leader who during the past few months reduced his “outside” commitments by 66 percent, from six organizations down to two. When I asked him how it was going he responded, “I was so busy that, every once in a while I still get a little anxious thinking I’ve might have missed a meeting or left a project incomplete.”

He eventually will relax into a new normal and enjoy renewed energy, increased productivity, greater mental freedom/capacity and an overall improved quality of life. As for the short-term break, that’s where vacations come in.

There are countless studies that show how vacations from work can lead to greater productivity, improved focus and engagement, decreased stress, increased problem-solving, more creativity and better attitudes about work.

Employers and employees should make an effort to maximize vacation as time to recover, rest and re-energize. Vacations are a healthy necessity that we’ve earned and are entitled to take, let’s not make our vacations miserable with guilt and interruptions.

To employers, encourage vacation time and minimize the pain of coming back to work. Find a good back up to keep projects rolling and manage compounding workloads during an employee’s absence.

To leaders and employees, I say get off the grid.

No one should be so busy that they can’t take a break from work, stress, email, voice mail and the reach of colleagues and clients.

Time off from work and reduction of commitments can make a world of difference. So, unplug, dial down and chill out.

Alex Taylor is associate director at the University of Iowa’s Tippe School of Management, alexander-taylor-1@uiowa.edu. Twitter handle: @ataylorataylor

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