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Physiologist and senior scientist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, associate professor at the University of Toronto, author of Superbodies and The Ripple Effect

When were you last on a truly relaxing, restorative vacation? I’m talking downed tools and time completely away from normal life – including your electronic tether to work.

If you’re thinking that it has been a long time, you’re not alone. Project: Time Off, an initiative of the U.S. Travel Association, reports that vacation use was at an all-time low in 2016 at just 16 days. Things have improved slightly since then with 17.2 days of vacation taken per employee in 2017 but a majority of the working population – 52% – still reported having unused vacation days at the end of the year.

But even a short vacation has been shown to improve health and well-being and can even improve cardiovascular health parameters. The challenge is that the limited amount of research that has been done on this topic suggests that the benefits are short-lived. So you need to schedule short breaks throughout the year. If you do, you are likely to improve your work performance, that of your team and the success of your business.

However, the thought of being “disconnected” makes many employees anxious, so they either don’t go away or they take our work with them. Our top two fears are that we will return to a mountain of work and that no-one else can do the job. Plus, businesses often expect us to stay connected.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Emailing While You’re on Vacation is a Quick Way to Ruin Company Culture, Katie Dennis offers two observations that ought to make business leaders rethink their go-go attitude to work.

− Sixty-nine percent of employees in companies that don’t support unplugging do not feel valued and 64 per cent do not feel cared about as a person. They are also highly likely to be looking for another job.

− Trusting employees to handle the business while you’re away uncovers new capacities and talents in them and develops their skills, which improves your business.

In addition, as Srini Pillay points out in another Harvard Business Review article, Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus, being in work mode all the time exhausts the focus circuits in the brain, which drains mental energy and reduces self-control. Rest and vacation relieve our minds of constant focus and lead to increased creative problem solving, better decision making and better collaboration and teamwork.

Recently, two leaders at the Bank of Montreal decided to challenge that corporate norm. Julie Barker-Merz, senior vice-president of the Southwestern Ontario division, embarked on an unplugged vacation, with the support of Sharon Slade, senior HR business partner.

“I told Sharon my plan was to take my phone, check it at the airport and then leave it in the safe at the hotel,” Ms. Barker-Merz explained. “Sharon challenged me to leave my devices at home to eliminate the temptation to check in. So I went for it. I left my phone and iPad on the kitchen counter. I had zero devices for nine days.”

Before she left, Ms. Barker-Merz sent an out-of-office message saying that no e-mails would be read, all would be deleted and anything important should be resent on the day she arrived back. After getting the sign-off from her boss, she also made it clear who should be contacted in her absence. In the end, about 800 e-mails were deleted – and only four were resent on her return.

Ms. Barker-Merz talked to the key people on her team, including Ms. Slade, before leaving.

“I said, ‘If anything comes up, just get together and make a decision. Your three heads are better than my one. If you make the wrong decision, it’s okay. I’ll stand by it.’ It highlighted a way I can coach and lift my team up, which will help them lift their own team up. It’s something many leaders struggle with, so this approach to vacation has the potential to help build trust in that way.”

Ms. Slade agreed: “One or two things did come up that needed SVP [senior vice-president] approval. So we had a few minor panic moments. It challenged us to think through what Julie would do. Before she left, Julie made it clear that she believed in us, so we just found what seemed like the best solution and carried on. We felt really empowered.”

Ms. Barker-Merz and Ms. Slade are helping to expose the myth that working more makes you more successful and valuable to your company.

Project: Time Off reported in 2016 that people who used fewer than 10 of their earned vacation days a year had a 34.6-per-cent chance of getting a raise or bonus, while those who used more than 10 vacation days had a 65.4-per-cent chance.

And then there’s the personal side of the ledger. Research shows that time away from work reduces stress and depression, improves heart health and sleep, and strengthens family bonds and relationship satisfaction.

How did Ms. Barker-Merz’s vacation go?

“I felt so present that whole week with my family. I read two books cover to cover. I’ve never done that on vacation. Before, I would read a page and just keep reading it over and over, because I’ve just read a bunch of e-mails and my mind is racing. Instead, I was relaxed, I slept well, I didn’t worry. Everything seemed simple and easy. It was fascinating. Now, I’ve been back for three weeks, and I’m still feeling that zen, for lack of a better word. I still feel like I’m not in the tornado.”

Click here to read Julie Barker-Merz’s and Sharon Slade’s full conversation with Dr. Greg Wells about unplugged vacations.

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