When Dionne Laslo-Baker began to expand her Victoria-based organic popsicle and freezie business seven years ago, her family got used to her always working.
Her inability to put down the phone and close her laptop got so bad that, four years ago, her husband demanded she stop interrupting their time together to take calls. Minutes later, her phone rang. He stormed off.
“It was a pivotal moment,” says the founder and chief executive officer of DeeBee’s Organics Inc. “I decided I am going to take time for my family … and I made a point that we go away for weekends in Whistler or up island [to Tofino and Parksville, B.C.].”
Managing to slip away for a week or even just a weekend isn’t easy for small business owners. Most don’t get paid vacation time. Many fear they can’t take time off because they’re responsible for running their companies. But working non-stop puts these owners at risk of burnout, which can damage health and result in lost productivity and creativity.
Tips to unplug
Ms. Laslo-Baker, a trained medical scientist, considers vacation essential for keeping her calm, her family happy and her staff empowered. She has developed a few strategies to help her take a much-needed break, tips that she is happy to share with other small business owners.
In an ideal world, you'd never look at your phone or check your messages while you're on vacation. But if you can’t unplug completely, Ms. Laslo-Baker recommends setting aside a small but reasonable amount of time each day you’re away to read messages and check in with the office. She usually budgets an hour a day, wandering off from family so she can be as effective as possible in that short window.
She also tries to find vacation destinations where cellular reception is harder to come by, like Nitinat Lake on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Spots such as these help her avoid sneaking a peek at her phone every few minutes.
Even with the best of intentions, however, Ms. Laslo-Baker says she still sometimes reverts to her workaholic ways. She cites a trip she took to Spain, where her daughter was competing in a debating championship in 2017.
“People would start to work [back in Victoria] when I was getting ready for bed, so I spent a lot of my evenings and nights or early mornings working when I was in Europe,” she says. “I didn’t get to enjoy it too much."
Know when to take time off
Taking a vacation during key times of the year can also be troublesome, Ms. Laslo-Baker says. For DeeBee’s Organics, that means whenever the business is launching a new product, announcing a new partnership or welcoming a new staff member.
Instead, small business owners should plan holidays around their quieter or “low-buying” seasons, said Somen Mondal, co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based Ideal Inc., an artificial intelligence-based recruitment software business.
For Mr. Mondal, that means vacationing around public holidays, when staff at companies using Ideal’s products are typically away too.
“If I was going to take a week off, I would do it around Christmas time, where there are two holidays, or at times when there are a U.S. and a Canadian holiday in proximity, for example, on Canada Day and the Fourth of July,” he says.
Once a small-business owner has worked out the ideal time to take off, Mr. Mondal says they should also prepare staff for how protocols might change and let them know who will temporarily take over the owner’s tasks.
When on vacation, Mr. Mondal usually delegates his tasks to his business partner, Shaun Ricci.
“We hardly ever take vacation at the same time, so I know that if I am not there, he is prepared to take over a sales call or meet with a customer,” Mr. Mondal says. “If he is not there, we have other people in the organization who we know can take over in a worst-case scenario.”
Mr. Mondal and Mr. Ricci are also careful not to go away for long stretches of time, when it may be difficult for the business to manage without them.
Vacations don’t have to be lengthy to provide some much-needed rest, Mr. Mondal says.
“It doesn’t always have to mean going away to Hawaii,” he says. “It can be just a few days off.”
Many small business owners who return from a long vacation find themselves quickly inundated with work and renewed stress, says Julie McCarthy, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
Her research shows it may be more effective for entrepreneurs to take four separate one-week blocks of time off, instead of a month-long break. “When you get back on the job, you know there’s a vacation coming up in the fairly near future … so you can avoid those levels of burnout,” she says.
For those taking longer trips, Ms. McCarthy recommends blocking off two hours every morning for answering messages and “putting out any fires” that may have arisen. It’s a strategy her husband, a small-business owner, uses when they’re away on vacation.
“He will communicate that to his team so they know what hours they can reach him,” Ms. McCarthy says. “He isn’t interfering with the family schedule because we have teenagers who are going to sleep to 11 a.m. anyway, and he gets his work done.”
Ms. McCarthy believes it’s important to make and communicate that plan with family and colleagues long before you take off. That way, family members won’t be upset when you need to sneak off with your laptop and your staff know when it is okay to reach out.
That said, your employees should also feel empowered to handle certain issues that may arise while you’re away.
“They shouldn’t need to call you unless it’s an emergency,” Ms. McCarthy says. “Often times, many of the things we are concerned about are still able to be solved without us.”