All work and no play

I’d be the first to tell you that maternity leave — even a generous one spanning a few months — is no day at the beach.

I’ve had three of them, and it’s an existence lived between a nap and a nap, cramming into two-hour chunks feedings, diapers and laundry. Lots of laundry. It’s also 3 a.m. jaunts on the treadmill in a dual attempt to put that baby strapped to your body to sleep while shedding those excess pounds. And in your most vulnerable moments, it’s regretting the fact that you put your name on the Do Not Call list, because the adult interaction afforded by telemarketers is suddenly a welcome diversion from maternal bliss.

But I will say one thing about maternity leave: It’s a nice break from work, the kind of break that’s increasingly rare. When you’re on leave caring for a newborn, no one expects you to check in via phone or e-mail. Since the only clothing you can wear are sweats, you have another excuse for staying home. In short, you can enjoy weeks without deadlines, office politics, schedules and routines — all that stuff that equals your life on the job.

And take it from someone who’s been there, those unencumbered weeks offer a new and refreshing perspective on work. For one thing, I no longer take it so seriously. Yes, boss, I remain committed to my job, and I always strive to do good work. But once I leave the office at the end of each day, whether I succeed suddenly has less bearing on my life and no impact on my ego.

In a world where (according to the Families and Work Institute) many Americans don’t take all of their vacation time, and where cell phones and laptops are packed before bathing suits and sunscreen, long spells away from the office for any reason other than serious ill-health are unheard of. It’s little wonder that stress rates are high and employees have a burnout rate reminiscent of a Silicon Valley dotcom.

It’s a vicious cycle. With recent layoffs, the remaining employees work harder. The harder they work, the more they need a break. But with layoffs in their rearview mirrors and the fear of more ahead, the less likely they are to allow themselves to take one.

The mania for work

Needless to say, an environment that emphasizes work without play is unhealthy. And anything that’s unhealthy has to be bad for business in the long run.

As founder and CEO of outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., John Challenger makes it his business to stay on top of workplace trends, and he sees a real danger in our culture of endless, pervasive work. “This has happened before in the tech industry. People burn out,” Challenger says.

And if the number of jobs available begins to increase, burnout will lead to turnover, something few companies would welcome during a business upswing. “No company can afford to lose its best people by running them so hard they ultimately move on to other places,” Challenger says. As the economy grows, companies will need to focus much of their attention on retaining employees. “That means giving them room to breathe,” he says.

It would be great if that breathing room included more than the typical few weeks of paid vacation. My recent four-month “break” was just the right amount of time I needed to decompress, to shift my mental and physical energies away from the world of work.

True, I wouldn’t classify my maternity leave as downtime (I read a grand total of one book for fun), but when I returned to work I felt reenergized simply because I had experienced some sustained relief from the inherent stress involved in switching between work and home. A week’s vacation here and there over the course of the year doesn’t provide enough time to allow your mind to leave work behind — particularly for executives who can’t go to the can without taking their cell phones along (you know who you are).

A modest proposal

As a nation of stressed-out workaholics, we need to shift our priorities, and be — dare I suggest it? — more like the Europeans, who vacation for weeks at a time without seeing their lives and economies fall apart. We should encourage sabbaticals with some sort of stipend that allows us weeks or even months away from the office. During our officially sanctioned absences, we’d be free to travel, take cooking classes, write that crime novel or do anything as long as it has nothing to do with work. If sabbaticals are accepted as the norm, careers won’t suffer. We’d be more balanced, less harried and probably a lot more interesting as individuals.

And what’s the chance that sabbaticals, or something like them, would be accepted by corporate America?

According to Challenger, it’s somewhat less than zero.

He would be happy if people just started taking all the vacation time due to them. Yet even on that score, he’s not optimistic. When salaries are stagnant, Challenger says, “people don’t really want to spend the money to go somewhere. Sitting around at home doesn’t seem all that attractive, so a lot of people just forego taking a vacation.” And when salaries begin to grow, there’s another reason people find for not taking vacations: They’re too stressful. “You keep checking in, your work piles up, and you have a nightmare when you get back,” says Challenger.

Talk about nightmares! It’s become too hard, too scary, to take a vacation. You leave the beach; you go back to your room; you start thinking about this project or that meeting. You try to call work — and you can’t get a line. Or the person who’s covering for you isn’t there. You try to check your e-mail, but you can’t log on. And you worry. Who’s covering? What’s happening? Hey, you might as well be in the office. It’s simpler.

Challenger has seen the consequences: Executives who never distance themselves from work, never have the opportunity to recharge their batteries.

Why not just reserve your spot in the cardiac care unit now?

For employees to feel entitled to take all their vacation time, managers and executives have to set an example. The boss should use up his vacation time every year. Leave contact info behind, but make sure people understand that it’s to be used only in an emergency.

Right. Again, the prospects for that happening seem dim. If the boss can leave and cut the tether for two or three or even four weeks, the twisted message, the message he fears, may be that he’s not needed.

The proper message, of course, is that he’s done a terrific job preparing his reports to take over.

Oh, well. In about a year or so, I’ll be ready for another break, and it looks like I’ll have only one way to do that.

Oh, honey?

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