What Counts as a Vacation?

I read an article on Entrepreneurlast week about the ever-rising levels of workplace stress. 

“‘There are many factors that cause increased stress levels at work, including keeping up with changes in technology, increased workloads, and interpersonal conflict,’ Dennis Baltzley, a Korn Ferry senior partner and global head of Leadership Development Solutions, told writer Pooja Singh. “‘The largest source of current stress is the boss. More than 30 percent of the respondents said their superior is the biggest source of stress at work, and 80 percent said a change in leadership, such as a new direct manager or someone higher up the organizational chart, impacts their stress levels.’”

I’ve experienced all those things cited by Baltzley, and have written about many of them in this blog, but one thing I haven’t heard spoken about is the management of employee vacation time. What counts as a vacation today is questionable. My understanding of “vacation” is that it means a break from your work, and a chance to pause and catch your breath. Ironically, I find the lead-up to and the aftermath of vacation time to be among the most stressful times at work. 

With today’s skeleton staffs, many, if not most, employees are expected to finish all the work they would have done while in the office ahead of time, which can become an enormous stressor if, like me, you work in a deadline-oriented job with weekly deliverables. I have a publication that comes out every week, of which I am the sole writer, editor, makeshift-Webmaster and makeshift art director. That means for me to take vacation time, I have to get three weeks’ worth of issues ready in one week. Three weeks because I have the current week’s issue to ready, then I have to also get the following week’s issue completely finished, and scheduled online for publication, plus I have to ready all the elements for the week I come back from vacation, so my editors have time to review all those elements ahead of time. At your company, do you have employees like me, who are one-person shops with a mountain of work to surmount before they can enjoy vacation time?

Skeleton staffs are doable, but a problem arises when the one or two people, who are on the skeleton staff are on vacation, or forced to be away due to illness, family circumstances, or events such as jury duty. There is frequently no contingency plan in place to relieve the workload when the employee is indisposed. What are solutions to this challenge?

I explained my dilemma to a co-worker who noted that our publication cycle was in danger. Should we question the validity of skeleton staffs with the inevitability of breaks from work, and the stress the workload puts on employees? Or do we change our expectations, and build into work requirements the stipulation that accommodations will be made so the employee can pause when needed? In the case of my own work, that would mean an understanding that content would be re-run whenever I need to take a vacation, am out sick or another situation, such as jury duty, arises. If the break from work only lasts a week, that’s a solution, but what happens when the break lasts longer than that? 

Another solution is employee cross-training. To make that happen, you need not just employees, but managers and even executives, who are open to learning how to do new tasks. In my case, the employee above me, my editor, is not open to learning the (mostly simple) technology needed to pitch in and complete the work when I’m indisposed. Should openness to cross-training, regardless of employee level, be a requirement for companies with streamlined workforces? What employee in a skeleton-staff environment is too lofty to learn how to do the tasks of those in roles below him or her in the hierarchy? 

As I have written about many times previously in this blog, if you have employees with no weekly concrete deliverables, or any concrete deliverables at all, it’s important to question the legitimacy of their role. Do you have the luxury for employees—even managers and executives—who are not willing and able to roll up their sleeves and pitch in? The continuity of your services may depend on it, not to mention the continuity of your other employees’ mental health and well-being. 

How do you manage employee workloads, and set reasonable expectations, with accommodations when necessary, so employees can take vacations that are true vacations?


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