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How to Take Time Off From a Hectic Job

Alison Green
Report: More workers suffering from burnout amid weak economy

If you're like many Americans, you've accrued vacation time that you're not sure when you'll ever use. You might feel guilty about taking time off when there's so much work to be done, or just not foresee a slower period that will allow you to get away. But taking occasional breaks from work is crucial to maintaining your quality of life, and sometimes your quality of work too, since many people burn out when they're never able to get away.

If you're one of the many who doesn't know how you'll find time to go on vacation, here are five tips for making it happen.

1. Stop waiting for a "good time" to go. The nature of many jobs is that there will never be an easy time to take time off, no matter how well you plan for it in advance. But that's no reason to not go at all. It's in your employer's best interests to have well-rested and recharged employees, and vacation time is a benefit that you've earned, just like salary, so you should use it. So instead of waiting for the perfect time - which may never come along - decide that you will use your vacation time this year, and make the question one of what accommodations should be made, rather than whether accommodations can be made.

2. If your manager balks, be assertive. It's certainly your manager's prerogative to say that you can't take time off at a certain time of year (because it's the company's busiest time or because two other people on your team will be gone then), but she shouldn't say that you can never take time off. If you're getting the sense she doesn't want to approve vacation time, no matter when it is, address the issue head-on. Say something like, "I haven't been able to have a vacation in two years because it's so hard to get away, and obviously that's not sustainable in the long-term. Time off is part of my benefits package, and I'd like to use it. Can we talk about how to arrange things so that I can plan for some time off with confidence?" Sometimes some bosses are so caught up in the day-to-day rush of work that they need prodding to step back and look at long-term needs like this. (And good managers know that great people will eventually leave if they're working in a culture that doesn't support their quality of life, and good management is about getting results in the long run, not just the short-term.)

3. Be sure your office is prepared to handle anything that might come up in your absence. This means making sure that you've documented how to do the key elements of your job that could be done by someone else in a pinch; enlisting co-workers in helping cover pieces of your job that will need to be covered while you're gone; informing your boss about those arrangements so that she's in the know; and making sure that your outgoing voice mail message and email auto-reply both let people know that you're away, when they can expect a response, and/or whom to contact for help in your absence.

4. Try to unplug completely. Much of the benefit of vacation time comes from truly being away from work - mentally as well as physically. If you're still checking work email and taking work calls, you'll lose this benefit, especially since it takes most people a few days of doing no work to get out of work mode completely. So don't be tempted to check in to make sure you're not needed. In all but the rarest cases, your office can survive without you for a week or two.

5. But if you really can't unplug completely, limit the ways in which you're checking in. Don't offer your office constant availability; you shouldn't take work calls when you're relaxing on the beach or enjoying your dinner. Instead, if you can't unplug altogether, let co-workers or your boss know that you'll check voice mail or email once a day (or once every two days) and only respond to messages marked "urgent."

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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