Summer vacation. It’s time to go to the Shore or mountains with family and finally get away from work. Maybe in the old days, but according to a recent survey by careerbuilders.com, a third of all workers take their work on vacation. That includes laptops, checking voice messages and e-mails, or staying in touch with the boss. Making things worse, the typical worker in 2003 gave back two vacation days. And 16 percent reported taking no vacation at all!
On a recent radio show I interviewed Rosemary Haefner, vice president of careerbuilders.com. She said the combination of increased worker stress and diminished respite is an epidemic. More than 40 percent of all workers say they work more than 40 hours a week. That same number reports their work load is too heavy and has increased significantly over the last six months. Worse, the people in her survey felt there was very little hope that the stress would diminish in the future.
Some of the callers complained that with downsizing, there was no one to do their jobs while they were on vacation. So if they didn’t work while they were away, they would be overwhelmed when they returned. Others felt guilty about leaving work, and some felt their jobs would be in jeopardy if they didn’t keep up while on vacation.
Of great concern was Haefner’s report that 41 percent said they felt stress on the job but that it was manageable. She conjectured that these people had actually become accustomed to their own stress. And although their minds and bodies experienced stress, they could no longer feel its effects. Regardless, stress increases the body’s levels of adrenaline and cortisol which, over time, can do much damage. In addition, stress causes people to shut down emotionally, which can greatly impact all intimate relationships.
Most of human behavior is about diminishing suffering. So when we feel stress, our instinct is to do whatever we need to do to eliminate the cause. If we feel work causes stress, our instinct is to work harder so that we can eliminate the source of the stress. We all know that is not the answer. Somehow, if we work harder and produce more, we inevitably have more work and more demands – and, of course, more stress. What can be done?
First, understand that stress is a reaction to a situation of perceived threat.
Second, try to cut down on reactivity by understanding the stress and how you experience it. Explore what the distress is really about and what makes it feel intolerable. If, eventually, you can understand and tolerate your distress, you will be less likely to have a reactive response. You can do this by frequently checking in with your body to see how you are feeling at any given moment. If you feel anxiety, don’t try to react to it in an attempt to make it go away; just experience it.
Third, make a firm commitment to change something in your life. Either leave your work when you take a vacation, or make a commitment to not work overtime, or simply leave your work at work and don’t take any home at the end of the day. This kind of change will probably feel uncomfortable and produce anxiety, but don’t worry; the anxiety is there only because all change produces some anxiety.
Most religious texts talk about a Sabbath. Take one, and take one every week. Try to devote one day to neither working nor running around. Spend time with those you love. Perhaps read a book, listen to music or just look out the window. But take a complete vacation one day a week.
Finally, try to take vacations throughout the day. Just say no to working lunches. Make your lunch break a one-hour vacation. Spend the time with someone you enjoy being with, or by yourself. At least once in the morning and once in the afternoon take five minutes and check in with yourself. Notice that you are breathing. See how your body feels and do a stress check-in.
We cannot change the corporate structure but we can change ourselves. We must.