“I can’t believe how burnt out my team is. And people seem even more frustrated with one another than usual.”

I’ve had similar conversations with many clients throughout the pandemic, but something was different this time. This client’s team had been working around the clock since the start of the pandemic, and they were losing engagement, getting frustrated with one another, and not performing as well as before.

When was the last time you and your team took a decent break?

On exploring the issue, it turned out that these folks hadn’t taken a break in months. Many team members had been stuck at home, skipping the option to take a staycation and save vacation days for the future instead. Perhaps they had hoped to return to vacations at tropical resorts and bucket-list destinations before long. Now those vacation days have been saved up for well over a year!

My client said she would suggest her employees take their vacation this summer on the next team call. I was not convinced that this would be sufficient to solve the team’s burnout problem, so I asked her why employees don’t take vacations. If it’s provided, and managers suggest they should, why don’t they?

The two big reasons that stood out were:

The leader doesn’t take a vacation or stays connected to work while on vacation.

Ironically, the “do as I say but not as I do” theme hit home here. My client failed to show that she could take time away to rest. She herself was burnt out and exhausted. Although she had some vacation days booked, she knew she’d sneak in work and calls to demonstrate her commitment to “not letting anything drop.” To rectify this, it was important that she fully commit to modelling to the team how important it is to take a genuine vacation — it’s critical for mental health and renewed focus.

The leader (company) doesn’t understand how to enable people to completely disconnect from work while on vacation.

Some leaders don’t mention vacation time and there’s the unspoken expectation for people to book vacations without dropping the ball at any time. Other leaders remind people that nothing prohibits them from using their vacation days. Some leaders make a point of encouraging employees to take a vacation, asking what dates they’re taking, cheering them on, and reminding them to do it again in future.

The missing element—taking out the FOMO / fear out of vacation

What many leaders don’t do is re-think why employees don’t use their vacation time. And if they do, why don’t they fully disconnect while using that vacation time. It often has to do with the mental load that faces them upon their return, the fear of dealing with a doubled workload, or a fear of not keeping up with their work performance. This is where a Vacation Enablement Plan can come into play.

After booking vacation days, people also need to feel enabled to enjoy their vacation without guilt or fear of missing deadlines and emails. That fear is like a mental ball and chain while they’re trying to relax on the beach. It spoils the sense of freedom and mental relief that vacation should bring.

It’s time to build a Vacation Enablement Plan

Here are four steps to build a Vacation Enablement Plan that will restore and rejuvenate your team’s enthusiasm, creativity, energy, and focus. 

Step 1: Individual Discussions

Ask each team member how you can support them in fully disconnecting from work during their vacation time. It’s important to not just schedule vacation days, but to actually disconnect. Ask questions, walk through scenarios of anything that needs to be taken care of in their absence, and determine exactly what will help this person feel safe and confident enough to step away.

Make sure that any information needed to continue keeping things going in their absence is accessible and delegated to an appropriate person.

Step 2: Enablement Steps

Review tactical items that will help protect the business when employees are on vacation. Examples include:

  • Email management: Include out-of-office messages, who will be assigned to handle emergencies while employees are away, how clients and customers will continue getting timely responses.
  • Issue debriefing: Determine who will be briefed on critical items that may require attention.
  • Post-vacation onboarding: Determine how employees will get caught up on return. Review how you will ensure that their workload will not be doubled by the time they return.
  • Deadline modifications: Review what deadlines need to be reconsidered to allow for vacation flexibility.
  • Career opportunities: See if you have employees who would like a chance to learn by stepping in to cover essential items while employees are away.
  • 20-minute office hours: If there are no other alternatives, schedule two 20-minute time blocks over their week off to address issues quickly while an employee is away from their duties. If this is carefully communicated, team members will know when to expect answers and can work accordingly without bothering the vacationer.

Step 3: Team Discussion

Add the Vacation Enablement Plan to your next team meeting’s agenda the week before an employee goes on vacation. Engage the group on how they can support this person to fully disconnect during their time away. Talk about what situations would genuinely count as “emergencies” and emphasize that it’s better for everyone to solve any other issues without contacting the employee.

Discuss other team members’ vacation plans to see how everyone can support each other. This effort can genuinely become a team-building session—strategize how to toss the ball to one another to win at the game of vacationing! This way, everyone will see that the company is serious about employees getting the necessary breaks to take care of themselves, and that it is a process that is prioritised, organized, supported from the top down.

Step 4: Post-Vacation Debrief

Plan the meetings and conversations in advance to help the vacationer rejoin the rhythm at work after their time in the sun. Think about how to help them get up to speed versus making them feel guilty for not checking their phone for a week or two.

It may sound like these four steps make for additional work, but the truth is that taking a vacation is something everyone needs. In a pandemic situation, it’s even more important because mental, emotional, and physical self-care form such an important part of staying healthy and immune from disease.

All work and no play makes life dull, sick, and costly

The risk of not implementing these steps include:

  • Prolonged burnout.
  • Increased negativity among employees, more frustration, less cooperation, less productivity, less creativity, and problem-solving.
  • More errors at work that impact the company systems internally as well as customer service.
  • Illnesses requiring forced time off work with much less ability to plan the necessary support and delegate the additional work to other employees.
  • Loss of income to employees and company profits if all the above situations continue long term.

No one can continue turning out their best work when they are burned out. Ask your team if any of them feel like they are tramping through a swamp from the mental effort of just stringing together a coherent email or project recommendations to a client. I’ll bet you’ll get a few nervous yeses or at least a stoic face or too, trying to hold it together.

Everyone is feeling the paralyzing pandemic-fatigue of constant Zoom calls (it’s just plain unnatural and draining on a daily basis, right?), the isolation, bad news, stress, and pressure. The brain fog, anxiety, guilt, frustration, and fear of failure at work become worse and worse over time and eventually the body will break down to demand rest. Make a plan before this happens. Be there for your team and enable them to be there for each other too.

This challenge presents you with the ideal opportunity to take extra good care of your team in every way you can, and that starts with clear communication, planning, and enabling people to take an unplugged vacation. Including yourself. You are worth it, your team is worth it, and your business success depends on it more than you know.

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