Ten years ago, I was living on the road—way more than was healthy. We expect to see 25-year-old management consultants living out of suitcases, but when you're in your 30s and have small children at home, a heavy business travel schedule is a major encumbrance.
Two weeks every year, if I was lucky, I'd get to pack up the kids and the gear and take a family vacation. But there was a problem: The work didn't stop. Even when I was hiking in the mountains or sitting on the beach, counting heads bobbing in the waves, my phone would ring. My husband would glower. My heart would sink, because I feared it meant something was up at the office. And as sure as shootin', I'd pick up that phone and be dragged into an hour-long call. I'd be flashing the five-finger hand sign to my husband (as in, "five more minutes") but the call would drag on and on. And I'd think, "Something is wrong with the system."
The System Never Sleeps
Ironically, during the same years that I was trying to take real vacations and mostly failing, I scoffed and turned up my nose at the European schedule whereby whole populations vacation at the same time of year. My company's French facilities would shut down in August. No contact, no work, no one's home, they're all off on holiday. Like a typical American, I'd shake my head. "How can you compete in the marketplace when the whole company disappears for a month?" my American workmates and I would say. And then we'd get in the car or on a plane and take a fake American vacation where the phone never stops ringing.
The truth is that the Europeans got it right. In the knowledge economy, the only way to free yourself from your work is to conspire with your colleagues to put everything on hold. Think of those old Looney Tunes cartoons where the cat chases the mouse, and then they both stop and take a break and then they start the chase all over again. We're adults. We can agree: no work in August. We could pick any month. But when we go away and the work keeps coming, no one benefits.
Our families suffer because we're only half with them when we're on vacation, waiting for that phone to ring. We bring our laptops to the beach (and get sand in them). Our commitments aren't daily or weekly, they're ongoing: This report is due, it's budget time, the Monday meeting must have minutes, and you're the only one who can write them. Our work doesn't give us room to enjoy our time off, even though the payroll records show that we've earned it.
My husband used to berate me, "Don't they understand you're on vacation?" It was hard for me to get him to understand. "They're my friends, and I don't want to let them down," I'd say. "I can ignore the phone, but my own performance results and my friends' results would suffer. No one is forcing me to pick up the phone or answer the e-mail, but it's an ethical obligation, because I can't throw my colleagues under the bus."
"Then something is goofed up in the system," he'd say, and he was right. He's still right. Americans take slightly more than half of the vacation time they earn every year, and they aren't earning all that much. It's hard to go on vacation. There's an assembly line moving, and when you desert your spot, the units don't stop coming at you. These days, they're knowledge units and budget units and product-launch units instead of car parts, but they don't stop and they don't slow down just because you're on holiday.
Since we're not likely to adopt the European schedule any time soon, we may have to agree with our workmates on our vacation philosophies instead. If we say to one another, "I'm going to Yosemite, and I'm going to disappear for a week, no contact," then they can prepare for that. We may still feel pangs of guilt if we see their phone numbers popping up on our cell-phone screens and don't answer their calls, but hey, we warned them. A half-vacation is no rest at all, and we deserve those few weeks of mental rest every year. If you practice the full-separation vacation a few times in the U.S., you may even work yourself up to a 100%-disconnected trip to France. Just don't go in August—it's packed with tourists then.