It’s the time of year when people schedule vacations and take time off, but sometimes leaders struggle to detach. There are important reasons leaders must find a way to get away though—for themselves, and also for their teams and their organizations.
Leaders may resist taking vacations for lots of well-intentioned but misguided reasons. They may believe they’re protecting their team members from too much work. Or they may believe they are so critical to the organization that it can’t function without them. Contrary to these beliefs however, when leaders can take time off, it’s helpful to them mentally and physically. It is also empowering and developmental for their team members.
Why And How To Get Away
Here’s why leaders must get away—and how they can create space to detach and reboot.
Getting away is critical to mental health. A key element of burnout is feeling trapped or overwhelmed, so the ability to reduce the pressure and get out of the race—even briefly—is critical.
Leaders should remind themselves of the benefits of getting away and reduce the guilt that may come from taking time off. Leaders can also set clear boundaries on a regular basis. It’s natural for projects to ebb and flow, and sometimes people will need to work late or early to meet an urgent or unusual need, but when leaders can be consistent about working reasonable hours on a reasonable schedule, it’s an important investment in their mental health. It’s also an important signal to the organization that getting away from work is a good and acceptable choice to make.
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In addition to emotional health, getting away also supports cognitive health. When people feel stress, anxiety or depression, they release brain chemicals like cortisol and adrenocorticotropin which exacerbate malaise when they are chronic. At the same time, blood flow is reduced to the frontal lobes, causing people to have fewer ideas and struggle with decision making and logical analysis. The opportunity to take a breath and reduce the focus on work and task-related stress provides critical periods of respite and opportunities to get some perspective—which comes from distance.
Leaders can remind themselves they’ll be better for taking time off, and pay attention to how much sharper and fresher they are after they’ve had time away. This validation and reflection can help leaders reduce their false sense that it is necessary to work all the time in order to make their best contribution.
When leaders fail to get away, they may do damage to their personal relationships. Missing the walk on the beach during the family vacation to attend a virtual meeting, or stepping away from a holiday celebration to take a call, sends the message work is more important than friends or loved ones. Likewise, leaders who can’t detach may send a message to team members they aren’t trusted or viewed as capable. These kinds of cues can be damaging to relationships and chip away at a leader’s social wellbeing.
Instead, leaders can communicate clearly when they will be present with family and set expectations which are clear—and then stick to them. In addition, leaders can do their best to schedule work time and family time so they can be fully present for each—rather than partially present for either. Leaders can also benefit from being transparent. If there are exceptions where work must intrude on personal time, leaders can clearly explain what came up and why it was a critical exception.
Development And Empowerment
When leaders get away, it’s empowering for the team and provides an opportunity for learning among team members. Taking vacation reinforces the trust leaders have in colleagues’ capabilities and makes space for others to develop their skills. Leaders who can leave also contribute to an atmosphere where people are continually honing their skills to cover when the boss is away. In addition, when people feel valued and when they have the opportunity for professional growth, they are more likely to stay with their company, give their best and engage deeply in the success of their team and organization.
Leaders can ask team members how they would like to develop and be intentional about assigning tasks and responsibilities which expand the capabilities within the team. They can also recognize and celebrate colleagues’ contributions in order to value and validate team members’ important roles.
Solid processes are the lifeblood of an organization—systems which flow smoothly and methodologies which allow for customers to be serviced consistently. When leaders are disciplined about taking time away and turning off occasionally, they also drive the need for processes which are robust, and which don’t rely on particular people for effectiveness. Leaders who take time away also ensure they aren’t a bottleneck to a good process.
Create chains of command where approvals don’t rely on only one person, and design systems which run themselves or which have multiple people who can run them brilliantly.
Whether they mean to be or not, leaders are models and examples for others. Sociologically speaking, people learn through watching, listening to and experiencing other people—and they give special attention to leaders. Cultures tend to be a reflection of the people who lead them, so the choices leaders make about how they spend their time send important messages to the organization. When leaders effectively detach, it gives others permission to do so as well. And when leaders can demonstrate the ability to get away, it reinforces the organization’s value for people’s work and their roles outside work as well.
Some leaders pride themselves on providing “air cover” for their teams, protecting them from too much work by working too much themselves. But in reality, leaders must model the way toward appropriate work-life navigation. Each person has their own best way of integrating work and life, but there must always be moments away and time off. These are critical for leaders’ mental and cognitive health, and also for the empowerment of others and the health of the organization as a whole. Now is the perfect time for leaders to lead way toward some much-needed time off.