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We all need a sabbatical this summer

May 26, 2021, 12:30 AM UTC
We could all use a break this summer.
Virojt Changyencham via Getty Images

It’s all moving so fast. Packed restaurants and piñatas at a kid’s birthday are back. So are the morning commutes and small talk and lunch dates and handshakes. Masks on, masks off. 

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and this already feels like it’s going to be a season like no other. As we return to old ways, here’s a plea: Let’s not. Slow down, ask less of each other, and, perhaps if you can, take some real time off. The American worker needs a sabbatical, and this transition feels the perfect, maybe only, time.

Many of you are already plotting. Online travel portal Expedia says Americans plan to take an extra five days of vacation this year. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents say they felt vacation deprived—up 11% from five years ago. The study also found the U.S. took the fewest number of vacation days in 2020 out of 16 countries. 

“It’s a marathon not a sprint. We don’t need to go from 0 to 60 in the next week,” said Sayu Bhojwani, principal of Collective Future Consulting. “We can go from 0 to 20 or 0 to 30. Or on the other hand, let’s give ourselves a moment to think about all the opportunities coming at us—meetings, events, family gatherings—did we really miss those? Can we be more intentional about where we’re spending our time in person? Let’s build on that foundation to create a plan for the future.”

One of the reasons to slow down is because we actually haven’t figured out the important stuff. People received memos to head back to work by a certain date but still await notifications from their kids’ schools on what the plan for fall might be. Accenture’s research among C-suite executives shows they have adjusted on the work front, but 83% are “exhausted due to constant worry about their job and their family health” and 81% are “distracted due to the disruption in their family life,” such as someone falling sick or daycare closing. In the Expedia survey, 47% of people used vacation days this past year not for vacations, but to care for ailing loved ones or children stuck at home. 

“COVID has taught us that what people want most is flexibility in where they do their work,” said Kate Duchene, CEO of staffing firm RGP. “But the reality is that work-life balance has given way to work-life blending over the past 15 months, and many of us need time away.” She called on businesses to embrace “radical flexibility in planning return-to-work scenarios this summer.”

One way we can all get a longer break is to give each other a break. “Although easier said than done, we need to go easier on one another,” said Kyle Elliott, career coach and founder of Caffeinated Kyle. “Tone down your expectation levels of both other people and yourself.”

Companies are pondering their own role in getting people to work less this summer. CareerBuilder is giving staff paid Fridays off in July and August, offering a total of nine paid days off to help its staff re-energize and get inspired. Year-round, the company is also pledging to cut internal meetings on Fridays and give employees two free volunteer days. DocuSign, which allows users to sign and upload documents virtually, offers random days as company holidays to create more three- and four-day weekends, access to care for both children and the elderly, and encouragement that employees take their time off. 

Managers are also watching any language that might imply a ramp-up is about to occur. For example, Ellen Meza, director of global benefits and mobility, cringes at the “return to work” phrase. “Because we’ve been working this whole time,” said the mother of four. She also prefers the specificity of prioritizing balance between work and family, instead of work and life. 

Almost a third of DocuSign’s workforce receives some form of benefits from Spring Health, the mental health and wellness provider. Besides therapists, the company offers access to an on-demand library of exercises. Meza says she just took a 10-minute lesson on how to be more assertive when saying no.

Next up: a financial wellness program. “All of our employees have all this time saved and they have all this money saved in the bank because they haven’t been spending,” Meza said. “Do I have money or do I not? Can I set goals like a three-week vacation?”

Indeed, some might consider that a sabbatical; they come in many forms. My idea of a lighter summer workload, for example, will be no Monday morning meetings, no Friday meetings, no more meetings after 5 p.m. (next week’s column is on how to hold better meetings; stay tuned). I will try to get outside every day. I am aware that my summer sabbatical might sound like a regular work week. 

In the latest issue of her weekly newsletter that fashions itself “the internet tote bag,” journalist Nisha Chittal makes the case for a sabbatical of a different sort: one off the internet. 

“Every one of us could benefit from spending less time on social media and more time enjoying the outdoors, visiting loved ones we haven’t seen in months, going to restaurants and parks and museums and all the things we couldn’t do safely for the past year,” she wrote. “We no longer have to spend our free time Being Mad Online. We don’t have to be online at all.”

We need time to figure out what we want to spend our time on. The pandemic prompted a surge of people seeking more purpose from their jobs, for example. Bhojwani, also the founder of Women’s Democracy Lab, suggests they think even bigger. “How do you, in the context of your work, stand up for someone or bring a different perspective? How do you make decisions about how often you travel? How do you engage with your community and your neighborhood?” she asked. “The question is not ‘Should my job have more purpose?’ but ‘How do I lead a more purposeful life?”

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