As my husband and I plan a summer vacation, there are two items we definitely will bring: a laptop and a wireless card. Like most American workers, we cringe at the thought of leaving home without them, convinced that we must respond to e-mail from a cabin in the mountains or a hotel room in an oceanside resort. • And so, as we plan to take time off this summer, we have no real intention to cut ties with our offices. It should be no surprise that most American workers think as we do. With companies staffed lean, fear of job loss still an issue, and technology putting the Internet in our pockets, this likely will be the most difficult summer ever for workers to detach.
Workplace expert John Challenger advises against even trying: "You don't have to spend a part of every vacation day working, but you want to take your cell phone and laptop and make an effort to occasionally check in with the office. If you want to be missed a lot, do not disconnect."
Across the board, there's acknowledgment that workers need vacations this year. WFD Consulting's Second Annual Survey of Workload found that even as the economy has begun to improve, workloads continue to increase and the stress is taking a toll.
Out of the office yet never really away
Unlike last summer when workers hesitated to take paid leave out of fear for job security, this summer they plan to take vacations, according to a CareerBuilder survey. They also plan to take longer vacations, mostly a week to two weeks, as opposed to last summer when long weekends were the norm.
"Last year people were panicked," says Keith Brauer, vice president of human resources for Health Plus. "This year they have gotten slightly past that."
But Jason Ferrara, a senior adviser with CareerBuilder, thinks we have entered an era in which professionals will never again take work-free vacations.
"Technology has made it so easy to step away without really ever being gone. There's an attitudinal shift that says, 'I don't care when you work, just get it done.' That translates into vacation. I know you're not in the office but there's an undertone that says, 'Make sure you still get it done.' "
Gone are the days when companies hired temporary staff to fill in when workers took their vacations. Now, there's an expectation that workers will keep up with client needs and workplace concerns while out of the office.
Nearly half (49 percent) of the employers surveyed by CareerBuilder say they expect employees to check in while they are away, with 37 percent indicating it will be necessary only if they are working on a big project or there is a major issue going on with the company.
Even though Brauer's company has summer interns helping out, he plans to check in while on vacation in Pennsylvania where he will move his son into his college dorm. "I don't know anyone that truly disengages from work ever anymore," he says. "Some of it is the reality of the workload. I'm more relaxed if I know I'm not coming back to a headache."
Many think if the boss checks in, it sets the expectation. Karen Baker, a district manager and self-described workaholic, struggled to pry herself from her laptop while her family whined about getting out of their hotel room to see the sights. With her retail company under pressure to control costs, she says, "It was always in the back of my mind: What's happening at work? Are things going okay?"
She says she wouldn't penalize a staffer who doesn't check in but has an unspoken expectation that they will touch base.
Minimizing vacation time spent working
This era of the halfhearted vacations is creating angst for those who go to great lengths to afford the vacation they take this summer.
Caryl Fantel is vice president of communications in the family business, mrfood.com.
She has cobbled together a second honeymoon to California this summer, using frequent-flier miles and rewards points. She says she is committed to ensuring she leaves work worries behind, "otherwise it is not really a vacation."
To pull it off, she began preparing early, training her co-workers to fill in, and began assuring them, "I'm only a phone call away. If you need me, call me."
Meanwhile, Rich Thompson, vice president of learning and performance for Adecco, found a way to stay in contact without letting work overtake fun. "Wake up early before your family gets up, knock out priority e-mail and leave the BlackBerry behind for the day," he says. "I tell them if they need me, call me on my wife's cell. Who's really going to call on a spouse's cell?"
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life.