Your co-workers will manage just fine if you take a vacation
Making plans for summer vacation? You’re probably wondering whether you’re too busy to take a week off from work. The prospect of being away from the office probably makes you a bit jittery. After all, how will they get along without you?
You’re not the first person to consider what not to pack to make room for your laptop. We convince ourselves that our work contributions are so absolutely essential that our organization will fall apart at the seams if we go off the grid, no matter the interruption to our personal lives, much less the disagreeable effect on our colleagues.
It’s the indispensability syndrome: A fallacious emotional urge rooted deep in our desire to be wanted and needed. We feel threatened by the realization that our work world can continue without us. It’s a perfectly natural feeling, but it comes at high cost.
One executive I worked with had been promoted to partner at a mid-sized government consulting firm two years ago. Only 35, his ambition and work ethic propelled him quickly through the ranks. He was known as a perfectionist whose work reflected the very highest standards.
The firm required all partners to take a two-week sabbatical every two years. The idea was to step back from the everyday grind and come back rested and recharged with innovative ideas about how to advance the company’s practice. Associates were expected to be prepared to assume all responsibilities during a partner’s absence.
But during his sabbatical, this young partner emailed and texted his associates multiple times daily and directly contacted clients for updates -- even though doing so was explicitly prohibited by firm policy.
The result: Four of his 10 associates requested transfers. He was sternly warned that his behavior was unacceptable and would negatively effect his annual performance review. He learned the hard way that he wasn’t indispensable.
There’s a psychological bulwark to the indispensability syndrome. Not only do many of us inflate our view of our own significance, we also worry that our talent isn’t as crucial as we have presented it to our colleagues, or ourselves.
According to a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Assn.'s Center for Organizational Excellence, more than half of all employed adults say they check work messages at least once a day over the weekend, before or after work during the week and even when they are home sick. More than 40% reported doing the same while on vacation.
My own research, conducting interviews with 127 executives from 17 countries, suggests that the APA’s findings would be amplified if focused on senior corporate employees. When asked how important their contributions were to their unit or team, all of them responded “very important.” When asked how important their contributions were to their unit or team compared with others, 76% responded “more important” and 24% responded “as important.” None said “less important.”
When asked how uncomfortable they’d be if they had no contact with their organizations whatsoever for two weeks, 72% said “very” and 20% replied “somewhat.” Only 8% responded that they could part for a while with no worries.
Those are stark figures.
Part of this can be traced to technology. Thirty-six percent of employed Americans said communication technology increases their workload, makes it more difficult to stop thinking about work or take a break from work, the APA survey reported.
Research conducted by Gloria Mark at UC Irvine showed that people interrupted by email reported significantly increased stress compared with those left alone to focus. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at UCLA, found that stress hormones have been shown to reduce short-term memory.
The effects of this behavior are bad for us and our colleagues. If we distort our own importance, then we reduce the value of others. In doing so we smother the people who work for and with us, rather than helping them stand on their own. That isn’t leadership.
We’ve accomplished what we have for a reason, so there’s no reason to worry that our capabilities will be forgotten after a week or two of vacation. If we reconcile ourselves to the fact that we’re not quite as important as we think we are, that all of us need to decouple from work in order to replenish and that our constant involvement is not always beneficial to colleagues, we’re more likely to take a vacation, and will, in turn, make greater contributions at work upon our return.
James Bailey is a professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business.
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