Certified Leadership Coach

Stop Bothering People on PTO

PTO: Paid time off, also known as personal time off.

A message posted by Jack Appleby triggered a memory of when my boss contacted me while I was on vacation in Mexico!

I accepted an international inner-company transfer in January 2017. At the time, I headed out alone without my family to begin my new journey in the United States. I took nothing but the dog and a suitcase leaving behind my two boys and husband. In March, my boys joined me with my husband following two months later. In December 2016, this all seemed like a solid, logical plan. Still, it was torture, and I would never recommend a family split for an extended period, no matter how rational it seems.

In celebration of our family reuniting, we decided to take a trip to Mexico together. I felt like all I had done was eat – sleep – work since January, so I needed it. Plus I missed my family. My team knew I was heading out, my boss said he would cover, and all seemed perfect. Then on the first business day of my vacation, I got a text. 

“Hey, we need you to approve a purchase order in the system.” 

“How am I supposed to do that? I’m in Mexico.”

“Ted (my then boss) says just log into your laptop and approve; it’s ok.” 

Oh, I see. My boss was standing beside my employee, asking her to text me. Of course, he wouldn’t dream of asking me directly.

Furious, although my career flashed before my eyes, I continued and shot back a response that said,

“You guys are hilarious; I didn’t bring my laptop with me because I’m on vacation.” Not my finest moment.

“You can approve from your phone.”

Ugh. Defeated.

Sadly it seems my story is not uncommon. For example, in this article by Ashton Jackson on CNBC.com, she reports that 54% of respondents can’t disconnect from work on vacation.

54% of people can’t disconnect from work on vacation. Here’s why (cnbc.com)

However, as infuriating and disheartening as that experience was, I learned exactly what I would never do as a leader. So when I returned, I started a new movement. My team implemented a vacation protocol and supported each other during vacation. We practiced restraint when the “expert” was not accessible. We had to work together, get creative and find alternative solutions. Yes, people first said they liked it until the challenging moments arrived. Thankfully as people returned from vacation, recharged, and were grateful for a disconnected break, the momentum grew and soon enough we were all experiencing team-supported vacation bliss.

Don’t be this person!

“Sorry, I know you’re on vacation, but I have something I need your help with.” 

What you’re really saying is that the other person’s mental health and boundaries don’t matter to you. Smile, but fix my problem.

Why Taking Vacation Time Could Save Your Life (forbes.com)

What I learned in the Battle to Protect Vacation

Employee Tips

  • Prep for your vacation time. Who needs to know what? Who needs specific system training to cover? In my story, I should have understood the approval system better to set myself up for a successful and unbothered vacation.
  • Expect people to cover for you but don’t forget to pay it forward by covering for others when they’re away.
  • I didn’t use a phone for much personal use, so I just used my work phone for personal use. In my experience, it’s easier to disconnect when you have a designated work phone and a personal phone. If you can help it, try not to comingle business with pleasure. If your work email is connected to your phone, this may involve signing out so that you don’t get work notifications.
  • Don’t prolong vacations. I pushed myself so hard all year, which meant I NEEDED that vacation. Being tired and worn out likely helped trigger my emotional reaction. Take care of yourself regularly.
  • Find solutions! At times, I hear statements like “No one knows what I know,” “No one ever helps,” and “When other people help, it just makes a mess, and I need to fix it when I get back, so it’s easier to work on vacation.” If this is you, consider reflecting on these questions
  • What would you need to change to release that control?
  • What support do you need from your manager? When will you have that conversation?
  • Do you feel you are a priority? How can you affect this?
  • How can you help yourself set boundaries? A resource to consider may be “Set Boundaries. Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself” by Nedra Glover Tawwab.

Manager Tips

  • Vacation time is vital to employee happiness; protect your team and ensure they take their uninterrupted time.
  • The business still needs to run so, get good at facing challenges. Put plans in place for coverage and ensure key personnel are not off simultaneously.
  • Create a culture of support and cross training
  • Ensure employees take time off. My current team is full of hard workers, and this year, I had to make it a goal to take a week per quarter. I never ever thought I would have to push, but when you change culture, you start alone. When they return, and I hear stories about how they went fishing with friends, spent time with family, or built a garage, I know I’m doing right by them. I know the intentionality is benefiting them.
  • Don’t participate in the narrative claims “my employee is willing to work when they’re off.” Take a stance and create a balanced culture. 
  • If the employee quit tomorrow, you would no longer have access to them. Then, by default, you would just have to figure it out. So just find a way.
  • Lead by example. Don’t tell, show.