I used to think this way. Last month, before the outbreak became an official pandemic, my goal was to push through the stress of my new reality and take a long vacation when this was all over to make up for all my canceled plans. But as that end date has become increasingly uncertain in the U.S., I made the decision this week to take some time off. At first I resisted the idea that I may need a break. I had my evenings, and I had weekends off. Where would I even go? But as my workdays and weekends blurred into one mess of anxiety, I decided I needed a reprieve.
Maybe you do, too. Professionals in the United States are notoriously bad at taking vacations. Two in three employees reported working while on vacation and only 23% reported taking all of their eligible time off over the past 12 months, according to a 2017 survey by Glassdoor.
Listen to when your body tells you it needs a break.
Your body may let you know that you need time off before your mind is ready to acknowledge it. Pay attention to the signs.
Cynthia Pong, founder of a coaching business that focuses on helping women of color to transition in their careers, noted that red flags include constant fatigue, body aches and tasks taking you longer than they used to, though she acknowledged that there’s some level of distraction happening regardless because we’re focused on the spread of COVID-19.
“If you have some level of awareness what your normal ranges are, and you feel like things are off from that, I would... take a day off. See if it does help or not,” Pong said. “Probably one day is not even enough. You might need to be making some other changes... It’s about being aware and then adjusting, so that you can take care of yourself.”
For New York City-based small business owner Pooja Kothari, it took an outsider’s perspective for her to realize she needed a break from her job as an unconscious bias facilitator.
“My wife and I, we are both now working from home, and we have a 1½-year-old daughter,” Kothari said. “While we did actually have a good schedule, it just wasn’t conducive. I was so stressed at work, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, if I don’t use every moment of these two hours, then I’ve wasted time,’ and then there goes the internal way I value myself.”
During a FaceTime conversation, someone told Kothari that she was unconsciously grimacing while talking about the work she is usually passionate about. That was when Kothari decided to take a two-week break, and she paid her employee for the time off, too.
Kothari is grateful for her time off but acknowledged that a lot of professionals don’t have the luxury. “These moments where I can sit back and not worry about how I’m going to hustle is obviously because of my socioeconomic privilege, because my wife has a very stable career,” Kothari said.
If you are able to do so, taking a step back from the daily hustle ― whether it’s a day or a week ― can be a necessary reset for how you approach your job. Busyness is not a badge of honor you need to wear. If you are continuously sacrificing your well-being for your job, you may be exhibiting signs of work martyrdom. Work martyrs put the job first, even at a cost to their mental health and career ambitions.
For professionals who feel guilty about taking time off, licensed social worker Melody Wilding gave me a helpful tip: Reframe rest as recovery.
“Recovery is a much more active, participatory word and better reflects what you’re doing,” she told me for a previous story on work martyrdom. “You’re investing in your future self, you’re investing in your energy, you need that recovery time to recharge your batteries.”
Make your break actually a break.
To make a break from work actually restful, try moving your digital work temptations out of sight. Pong suggested removing work email from your phone before your vacation starts. If you start your break deleting work apps, “you’re probably going into [the apps], let’s be honest,” Pong said.
It doesn’t have to be a long vacation for it to matter. There is an extensive body of research showing that even small breaks from work can make a significant difference on your energy and vitality.
Once you’re on vacation time, it’s OK to be idle. Letting your mind wander can be good for you. University of Central Lancashire researchers explained that daydreaming can spur creativity because “seemingly illogical ideas can be explored... and through this exploration a new or more suitable solution to problems or unresolved situations may be found.”
Or you can read a book that has nothing to do with the coronavirus, which Kothari said was one of the most fun activities she did during her time off.
“I read [‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’] by Haruki Murakami,” she said. “I had a really viscerally strong negative reaction to the book, which felt so great to feel something strongly about something that was just a fictional book... I just really enjoyed it. It was separate than the anxiety we’re going through.”
Don’t force yourself to be productive on break. Try making it about what you will.
When workers in the United States organized for an eight-hour workday back in the 1880s, they called for “eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, eight hours of what we will.”
In her book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” artist Jenny Odell noted that she was struck by what these workers associated with ”‘what we will’: rest, thought, flowers, sunshine. These are bodily, human things,” she wrote. “Although leisure or education might be involved, the most humane way to describe that period is to refuse to define it.”
Doing what you will is a reminder that you don’t need to “make the most” of your time off during a pandemic by being productive. Staying present in the moment is enough.
See your rest as recovery for the long road ahead. As for me, I’m going to take my daylong reprieve to forget the alarm, sit on the couch, read something not related to the coronavirus, bake a cake and see where the day takes me. My goal for the day is to not make goals. I don’t see this time off as a solution to my anxieties, but I am making space for myself to recover. It’s a start.
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