If you've ever worked for a large company had had to "earn" your vacation hours, it's time to ditch that mindset. You don't need to earn the right to institute a disconnection from work. Just by working hard and putting in the effort, you’ve earned the right to get away from work responsibilities, emails and conference calls. Not just a for a few hours a day or over the weekend, but maybe even a full-on vacation.
In order to perform our best, we need to recharge our battery. Employees are not machines; we don't have a hard drive that keeps us running nonstop, a relay block to give us instructions or a control panel to switch us on and off. We're people, and as such, we need to take the time to establish a clear connection to our work. That means that when we're engaged with our job, we're totally engaged — and everyone in our network should know it.
It's completely reasonable to establish a time frame where you can safely remove yourself from Slack threads and email chains, but it's also reasonable to have a set time where your employer and team know that they can count on your service to get them through the day. Making your connection time explicitly clear helps you clarify any disconnection time you establish later.
Still, if you're having trouble taking paid time off and feel uncomfortable disconnecting, you can take advantage of the below tips on how to get there. Here's how to disconnect from work so you can recharge your battery and live a meaningful life.
1. Understand you need time to unplug.
The first step is to know how important de-stressing is and how it is physically beneficial to you.
According to a new study from Project: Time Off, the American workforce is under serious stress:
“After years of being asked to ‘do more with less’ workers are overstretched, stressed out, and exhausted. The always-on, 24/7 American work culture is taking a heavy toll, leading to 429 million wasted vacation days that undermine our personal, business, and economic well-being. Simply put, taking earned time off is essential for a productive workforce, strong bonds with family and friends, and a fulfilled life.”
Caroline Dowd-Higgins writes that people who take time off can actually live a healthier lifestyle. As she writes in the Huffington Post, “Salary.com concurs that taking time off will actually help you be more productive and healthy in life and career.”
2. Make sure your employer gives you the option.
Yes, we acknowledge that kicking back and treasuring time with family and close friends is a plus. But it's even more of a plus when your employer endorses your decision to disconnect from the office. New research also shows that when seeking a job, the promise of time off can be the tipping point for someone signing on to a new employer.
“Though Americans are notorious for skipping vacations, a new study shows an overwhelming majority of employees believe companies should offer paid time off as part of their benefits package," writes Brendan Barbosa in Inc. "In fact, employees said, they'd turn down a job if paid time off weren't offered.”
3. Start disconnecting by starting small. Take a hike!
If the idea of unplugging means updating your passport, finding the best places to shop and exploring a new city or country, think again. Stay home and go on a hike in a forest or other natural setting. It’s called “forest bathing,” and new research shows it can be a mood elevator.
Allison Aubrey at NPR reports that “Certified Forest Therapy guide Melanie Choukas-Bradley explained the aim of forest bathing is to slow down and become immersed in the natural environment. She helped us tune in to the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest. We took in our surroundings by using all our senses.”
There is science behind these claims. According to Kara Marker, as she writes in Lab Roots:
"In a 2010 Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine study, scientists conducted a series of field experiments in 24 Japanese forests. Researchers found that the walks in the forest environments lowered a series of stress-inducing factors, including cortisol (a stress hormone), pulse rate, blood pressure, sympathetic nerve activity (fight or flight) and that it enhanced parasympathetic nerve activity (rest and digest).”
4. Remember that being a "work martyr" is not a good thing.
Everyone needs some disconnection time to regroup, refresh and reboot. It is not unreasonable to suggest that there be portions of days or certain days of the week when no one from work can email you or call on you to assist, manage or perform tasks.
The Independent Mail reports that “some of the most popular reasons why people would leave vacation days on the table include returning to a mountain of work, having no one else who can fulfill their job while they're off and being unable to financially afford a vacation,” reporter Elizabeth LaFleur writes. “The study also shows about 38 percent of the roughly 7,300 workers surveyed would prefer to be seen as ‘work martyrs’ by their bosses, though statistics show "work martyrs" may not be reaping the benefits they expect.”
In order to succeed at work, it's imperative to avoid burnout. There are plenty of physical, mental and emotional benefits to disconnecting from work and giving yourself room to relax and de-stress. If you're worried about how your team will view you, that's entirely understandable. But consider this: you want to be seen as someone who can achieve work-life balance and as someone who deserves the benefits of time unplugged, not as somebody whose whole identity is their job. By unplugging, you'll feel better about your professional identity and long-term career goals.
So give yourself — and all of us — the break we need. Chill.
A version of this post originally ran in Take The Lead. Michele Weldon is an author, journalist and editorial director of Take The Lead. She is a senior leader with The OpEd Project, emerita faculty at Northwestern University, mom of three sons and her most recent book is Escape Points: A Memoir.