Take a Vacation

Are you hurting both yourself and your business by not taking some time off? Taking a vacation could be one of the healthiest activities you do this year.

Seventeen years ago, Bill Clinton announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president. Here at home, Nirvana was the hot new thing on the radio, and the Soviet Union collapsed half a world away. In the movie theaters, audiences were awed by Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to feature 3D computer-generated images. All that seems very long ago now, and I have a personal reason for feeling the weight of all those years: Seventeen years ago, I took my last real vacation.

Ever since then, I have shown up at my office, eager to work and accomplish something in my life. I can’t say that such dedication has been without its benefits: Over the years, I’ve helped build a successful company and I’ve started one of my own. In the meantime, I have taken only 10 vacation days and five of those were for my honeymoon. Like many small business owners, I was worried that my business would fall apart without me. In the end, though, I am not really that different than many other Americans, who take only 13 days of vacation per year on average. That’s compared to the 26 days taken by our friends north of the border, the Canadians, and the 25 days taken by employees in Japan, and the unbelievable average of 37 vacation days taken each year by the French.

I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that many of us get vacations at all. Consider this: Australians get 27. The Germans get 34. Vacation days again? Close. These are the numbers of paid vacation days mandated by governments around the world. How many mandated paid vacations do Americans get? Zero. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not require any paid vacation days.

In all, 137 of the world’s 194 countries require paid leave for workers, with many requiring four or more weeks of paid leave, even in third world countries. Americans are paying a high price for not being among them. A recent study by the United Nations stated that Americans have an average life expectancy of 78.2 years. That puts the greatest country in the world in 38th place. That’s just above Kuwait and Barbados and just below Cuba and South Korea. Another study shows that the number will go down to somewhere between 72 and 75 years in the next two generations. Our drive to work is not only affecting our free time, it’s also affecting our health.

How did this happen? When many countries created minimum leave laws back in the 1930s, the U.S. briefly entertained the idea but it didn’t get anywhere. Ever since, the U.S. has just held on to a voluntary leave policy. “The current system just isn’t working,” says Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live. “Americans create the self through their jobs. Many people move a lot, so the job becomes a constant identity, even though it’s a bogus one.” One could argue that our persistent work ethic is partially what has made us such an important country today, but that same drive to succeed is taking its toll on our bodies.

Even in companies that allow paid vacations, 50 percent of their employees use less than half of their allotted time. Small business owners are the worst offenders. A recent study shows that half of small business owners take only the major holidays off. Of the other half, only two out of three take a whole week off in any given year. A recent study conducted by Orbitz, an online travel agency, found that there was an increase in Americans taking less than a week off for a vacation and a decline in Americans taking more than two weeks off. In fact, many business owners work endlessly, week by week, for months at a time. Eventually their bodies just give out from exhaustion. All the while, the idea of taking a vacation drifts even further from their mind.

Plan Your Vacation

More than ever, it’s clear that taking a vacation should be a requirement, not a luxury. With this in mind, I—the man who always works—will be leaving my desk behind and heading to the wilds of Africa for a 10-day safari. Instead of wading through the paperwork on my desk, I’ll be in Tanzania witnessing the great wildebeest migration in the Serengeti. In my case, I’ll be leaving behind 60 employees and a lot of responsibility, and I was initially worried about the toll that such a long vacation might take on my company. In the face of such worrisome statistics, however, I believe my life—and my business—will be better because of it.

Taking a vacation doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to fly to Africa in order to clear your mind. Vacations could happen as often as every weekend if you plan short trips to interesting and peaceful areas around where you live. For instance, Wisconsin’s scenic Door County and Michigan’s Traverse Bay are only a few hours’ drive away for us in Chicago. Both places are distant and different enough from the bustle of the city to refresh the spirit and come away with a unique and memorable experience. If we don’t feel like spending the night, there’s also nearby Starved Rock State Park, which, with its rocky bluffs and cozy lodges, feels more like New Hampshire than Illinois. No matter where you live, there are fun and exciting adventures waiting for you within a day’s drive or a short plane ride. Remember, however, to choose a destination that will revitalize you. A weekend trip in Vegas with your friends, although fun, may not be as relaxing and reinvigorating as a weekend in Key West.

Prepare Your Business

Once you have planned your vacation, you’ll need to prepare your business for your departure. I found this to be much simpler than I expected. First, you must decide whether your business will remain open while you are gone. For most business owners, this is an easy question to answer. Second, decide who will be in charge in your absence. This should be the same person that you would hypothetically send on vacation with your family if you were unable to go. Third, establish rules and limits on decision-making in your absence. Make sure you clearly communicate the appropriate reasons for contacting you while you’re gone. Otherwise, you’ll get a call every time Bob is late for work or Mary won’t do her share of the restocking. Finally, contact your most important customers and let them know that you’ll be unavailable.

It’s a good idea to set a time each day that you might check in, but you must prepare yourself for what you could hear. Keep in mind that your business will never run perfectly without you and remember that your vacation is supposed to be a relaxing, healing experience. You’ll have more fun if you limit how often you look in on your business.

As you read this article, it’s quite possible that I’m on the other side of the world, crossing one of the world’s last great wildernesses in a jeep or in a balloon. Back in the Chicago area, my business will be still running efficiently due to the simple measures I put in place. Think of a vacation as an opportunity to distance yourself from the everyday aspects of work. In the process of stepping away from your business, you may gain a better idea of the bigger future. In the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, perhaps I’ll come up with a new way to inspire my employees. On the Serengeti Plain, perhaps the answers to questions that have been weighing on my mind will come to me. On a vacation of your own, perhaps the same could happen for you. Whether you travel 100 miles or 5,000, you owe it to yourself and your company to take some time off.

After all these years, this short release from the pressures of the office has made me realize that time away from my office may be exactly what I need to enrich both my own life and my company. Having taken this first step, I am already thinking of my next vacation, and right now, I’m thinking that Hawaii sure sounds nice, and I’m certainly going to go before 2024.

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