I just got back from taking five weeks off from my day job. Time will always be relative, and as such, this may seem like a lot of time to some, but not so much to others.
For my fellow American professionals who haven’t even taken maternity leave, five weeks is a lot of time.
My position in management, my eight-year tenure and a recent acquisition materialized into 10 weeks of paid vacation time that I had to use this year.
Many of my colleagues were in the same position, and as the year progressed, the general reaction to this benefit was actually one of bafflement. How could we, or even who would want to, take so much time off?
Researchers have consistently found that Americans don’t take time off, even when it is part of their compensation package. Paid time off is typically relinquished, overshadowed by perceived pressure and deadlines. Even as so many leading companies market their progressive workplace culture, unlimited time-off and a work-life balance, Americans still work longer hours than the majority of our international counterparts.
I absolutely knew I was going to do something with this unique time-off opportunity. I am a certified yoga teacher, and I am always looking for ways to further my education in the philosophy and science of this ancient practice. This is a purely personal endeavor; teaching yoga is not that important to me, but deepening my practice is something that I hold near and dear to my soul. So here I sat, with all of this time to take and a personal passion tugging at my heart.
I work for a leading software company exactly like the one I described above. A company that was proud of the balanced culture it fostered for their employees’ health, families and community. We have beanbags instead of chairs, an organic café, ping pong tables and spinning classes. I had all of the ammunition I needed; I was successful, well respected and in senior management, and I had the time off accrued.
So why was I still so nervous to ask for five weeks of time off?
Because I was worried that it would be construed as a lack of commitment to my career. And this perceived lack of commitment would impede my career path.
Even with all of the amenities that support balance and encourage “life,” not just “work,” there is still an immense amount of pressure to prioritize your career and job above other aspects of your life. Why else would asking for a break be so daunting? This pressure is unrelenting, and it’s silent. I can’t imagine the emotional confusion parents have to go through.
I broached this time-off request with my boss back in March. And to reiterate, I was nervous. It didn’t help that my initial request was met with a deflated “oh.” So I retreated. I didn’t bring it up for another two months. I debated bringing it up again, but as the weeks went by, this desire to take advantage of a personal learning opportunity continued to tug at my heart.
So I continued to talk about it. I outlined how tasks would be delegated and created communication paths to mitigate any escalations should they arise in my absence. Doing this made the request seem normal. What was once met with apprehension was now met with support and even excitement. My colleagues were genuinely happy for me. And I could see the wheels in their heads turning—how could they make a personal opportunity happen for themselves?
My time in Bali completing a 300-hour advanced yoga certification, was nothing short of wonderful. I felt like I could really immerse myself in something that was completely personal, just for me and in a beautiful culture. As adults, we rarely get to do that, so this time was a true gift.
When I came back, I was asked, “How was it?” first and, “Is it hard to come back?” second.
My answers were a consistent “amazing” and “no,” in that order.
Coming back from time off is notoriously hard. But this time, coming back wasn’t hard; I came back with space in my head and space in my heart. I felt a renewed connection to my friends, my community and my job. Because of this, I feel creative and energetic and I’m applying this energy to my company and my job.
In actuality, the time away had the exact opposite effect of what I originally feared. This time strengthened my commitment to my company and my colleagues. I don’t think of my company as just supportive when it comes to work-life balance; I think of my company as an ally in helping me achieve my definition of work-life balance.
It’s easy to say, “If something is tugging at your heart, make it happen.” But the reality is that this can be hard, due to various circumstances.
Traveling abroad for an extended amount of time just may not be a possibility. What I will say, though, is that life is meant to be lived, and this definition doesn’t have to be extravagant, extreme or even that far off your norm.
Find out what balance and rest mean for you. I almost didn’t make this happen because I was caught up in my own perceptions of what I should do and what others would think.
So my message is just this: Don’t create your own boundaries. The only person that is going to take care of yourself is you, and when you take care of yourself, everyone around you will benefit.
Americans need to rest and rejuvenate, and we should work with our employers and continue to refine the work-life balance. We need keep talking about how balance may have different meanings to different people.
Balance and rest have the potential to makes us better and more creative. They can make us productive and positive, and they can deepen the connection with our employers. This open dialogue makes employers and employees allies.
Author: Erin Ramsay
Editor: Toby Israel
Photo: Author’s Own