Ben is CGO at GumGum, responsible for the company’s global sales, planning and marketing.
One month ago, I set myself a seemingly impossible goal: one week off with zero work calls, zero emails and zero contact with my team. Sounds easy, right? But in my role as chief growth officer at a global technology company, it was anything but.
As someone who grew up in Brittany, France, finding time for vacances should be second nature to me. After all, I was raised in a nation that thought nothing of disappearing from work entirely come August. The so-called fermeture annuelle is a rite of passage in France: a mass summer exodus from city offices to countryside homes or the beach that is observed and revered by many.
Lunch breaks are equally sacred. The vision of a long, lazy meal with Cognac may be over-served these days, but Edenred data (published in The Local in 2016) found that 43% of French workers still spend over 45 minutes eating lunch. That’s compared to just 3% of Americans who afford themselves the same luxury.
Somehow, though, this respect for life beyond work that was etched into my DNA as a Frenchman has been eroded by the career I love. I remember that when I first moved to the States over a decade ago, I was given a Blackberry to use on weekends. Privately, I thought, “That’s never going to happen: Who works to ‘get ahead’ on a Sunday night?”
And yet here I am, 10 years on, checking my work phone every 10 seconds. Sometimes, the quick drive to collect my son from school takes twice the time because I’m forever pulling over to reply to messages and take calls. How sad is that?
I’m not alone, of course. “Continuous partial attention,” as National Geographic describes (paywall), is a symptom of the hyperconnected age we live in. We’re forever jumping from one device or platform to the next — never stopping lest we miss the bleep of an incoming message. We’re all wired; and in the same breath, many of us are likely chronically under-focused.
So, my mission was to remove myself from this picture: to break away from the near-60% of Americans who LinkedIn (via CBS News) found check in with their bosses or coworkers at least once a day while on vacation. It was an experiment and a mere baby step in the grand scheme of things. And yet it prompted some eye-opening insights.
For starters, my unplugged vacation seemed to last longer. According to a survey conducted for G Adventures (via Travel + Leisure), Americans take three days to de-stress on holiday. It’s not uncommon to find yourself finally relaxing just moments before you return to the grind.
If you take an unplugged vacation and aren’t checking your emails every half hour or so, the residual tension may ebb away more quickly. Instead of “checking in,” you can spend time playing with your kids, being present at meals out and taking long, restorative walks on the beach. I believe untethering from your work phone means finding a shortcut to that bone-deep relaxation that is synonymous with a good holiday.
The second revelation will likely be (surprise, surprise) that your team can survive without you. As a line manager in charge of over 100 employees, I’m used to providing a safety net when I’m away. I jump into conversations and generally check and validate tasks when I need to.
If you’re like me, there will be a few moments during your holiday where a quick intervention from you could help things along considerably. But you should resist. By figuring things out themselves, your team can really step up. They can learn to meet and manage challenges on their own. You can learn to step back and trust.
Thirdly, you’ll need to manage your handover more scrupulously, with detailed notes to cover the fact that you won’t have half an eye on proceedings from afar. Equally, I recommend giving yourself a full day for email catch-up on the other end of your holiday rather than plunging straight into meetings to allow space to process what you missed.
Planning a vacation like this may seem like more trouble than it’s worth — but to follow that logic would be to embark on a bleak path indeed. A 2018 study from campaign group Project: Time Off (via CNBC) found that the average American took just 17.2 vacation days in 2017 — and more than half of Americans said they had lost unused vacation time.
In contrast, France mandates at least 30 working days of paid annual leave, according to data from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. That comes in addition to my home country’s 35-hour workweek and “right to disconnect” legislation.
These stats matter because they indicate an uphill struggle: a struggle that starts with a phone and ends with America’s issues around overwork and stress. As a leader, it’s important that you look around yourself and recognize if no one has taken time off over the past year. Many of us are working like maniacs, and productivity levels may be through the roof — but this likely can’t last.
The World Health Organization now classifies “burnout” as an occupational phenomenon resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It’s up to me, and all managers, to push back against this toxic “always-on” mentality.
I believe vacations are a vital buffer against job stress. But we can’t recharge if we aren’t allowed to fully disconnect — if we contact colleagues on vacation or they fail to respect boundaries.
In his book Deep Work, author Cal Newport writes: “What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore — plays in defining the quality of our life.” By taking a holiday that’s fully disconnected from work, you are ignoring the tsunami of demands that tell you that you cannot switch off — and you’re inviting your co-workers to do the same thing. We may not be able to reach the French spirit of vacances, but we’re one step closer to the dream.