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THE INTERVIEW: LAURA STACK

Laura2 Need a vacation? If you’re an American, you undoubtably do, since there’s a very good chance that you’re overworked and suffering from vacation deprivation. According to Expedia.com’s 2007 Vacation Deprivation survey, 35 percent of Americans did not take all of their vacation days. And 23 percent of workers checked their voice mail or email while on vacation. The sorry state of the American vacation is a subject that Laura Stack knows something about. The president & CEO of The Productivity Pro, Inc., Stack is a time management and productivity expert who helps clients such as Microsoft, TimeWarner and Visa. She’s the author of "Leave the Office Earlier" and "Find More Time." And she has a lot to say about Americans and their dwindling vacation days.

Okay, why are Americans so reluctant to take their vacation days?

With many companies possibly looking to further cut headcount, many workers are hesitant to leave the office for vacation, lest they be perceived as expendable. Feeling pressured and pushed, not respected, tension at work, or that your work isn’t of real value also lead to overwork. People who feel these things are more likely to neglect themselves and less likely to feel successful in their personal and family relationships. Plus they are worried about being behind when they return.

Why is a vacation so important?

Families need a change of pace and scenery and fun on a regular basis. Vacations offer the restorative power of fun many people desperately need. Everyone needs an extended break, not just a rest period. Without the ability to recharge your batteries for a longer period of time, you’re on a slippery slope to burnout. Overworked employees can lead to drastic on-the-job consequences. They are more likely to look for a new job, feel angry with their employers, and make mistakes. So when I hear people brag that they haven’t had a vacation in five years, I’m seriously unimpressed.

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Where are you vacationing this year, and how often do you take a vacation?

I take at least four weeks of vacation each year. This year, our trips include Club Med in Florida; San Diego, CA; Las Vegas, NV; Disneyland; Maui; Oahu; and somewhere tropical the week before Christmas.

Why do you think people have such trouble leaving their work behind when they go on vacation?

People don’t mind working hard because you get recognition for it and they "need" you there. I’ve heard all of that before. The fact is you can get another job more easily than you can get another family. You might work yourself to the bone, only to turn around and get handed a pink slip. At some point, your job can turn on you and throw you into chaos, only to find that your family and friendships have been neglected and your usual support system is in shreds.

Why is disconnecting from the office so difficult?

Once you’re convinced that you’d better do yourself, your coworkers, and your family a favor by going on vacation, the next question is how to do it. That might seem like a silly question, but seriously, some people tell me they take a vacation just to accomplish all the things they can’t do while they’re at work. That’s not a vacation! You don’t get recharged, refreshed, and rebooted unless you actually get away from the office and into an environment that’s conducive to relaxation.

Cell phones, smart phones and wireless internet make it is harder than ever to get away from the office. So is there a best way to disconnect?

Limit or eliminate your contact. The objective of a vacation is to get a psychological break from work to recharge your batteries. Don’t think you are oh-so-important that you have to contact the office every day when you’re gone. You’re not really as indispensable as you think you are. If a bus hit you tomorrow, the work would still get done. If you are that irreplaceable, I would point out you’re not developing your replacement properly, so you can be promoted. Get the right people to cover for you and forward your calls. Put an auto responder on your email saying you’ll be gone until (x) time and so-and-so is available to respond to immediate needs. Findmoretimecoverart

How about delegating your work and responsibilities to others?

Use temporary messages for your office. To avoid returning to utter chaos when your vacation trip is over, create your temporary voice mail greeting and email notification. Inform people when you’ll return and who to contact in your absence. For this person, make a reference sheet of needed information and places where current project documents have been filed. Sit down with that person before you go and provide a run-down on what you’re currently working on. Promise to return the favor, acting as the contact person in the future. Ask your contact to sort your email and check your tickler file each day to ensure nothing important falls through the cracks. When you do this, you’ll feel much more at ease while lounging on the beach.

But what if you’re self-employed, and you must check you email or voice mail. Is there a way to do and still enjoy your vacation time?

If you must be in touch, limit your time to set hours such as 8:00 to 10:00 AM, and then enjoy the rest of the day. If you spend your vacation worrying about clients, prospects, and computers, you aren’t really taking a vacation.

You’re known as the Productivity Pro. Can the same systems you advocate for works function in a vacation setting?

Some. Vacation when everyone else is not. Conference planners have known this secret for ages. If you plan an event in July in Phoenix, Arizona, you can get a "killer" deal and the resort won’t be crowded. If you go to Hawaii in the winter, expect beaches to be crowded. Go to Disney World when kids are likely to be in school, so the lines will be much shorter and less frustrating to deal with. Prepare your home for your absence. Back up any important software, just in case there’s a power problem or sabotage that could wipe out your hard drive. Put your mail delivery on hold. Find someone to water your plants and bring in the paper. Clear your in-box of papers, so you can distinguish the old from the new upon your return.

How about burnout? Have you seen cases of it that can be attributed to overwork?

If you feel like you’re stuck behind your desk on a beautiful day while the rest of the world is on vacation, it’s because you are and it is. The World Tourism Organization lists Americans as having the least vacation time in the industrialized world. Workers in the U.K. are guaranteed 20 days by law (and average 25); Japan grants 10 days per year and averages 18 days per year. U.S. workers aren’t guaranteed any vacation time by law. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. workers average 10.2 days of vacation per year after three years on the job. In the U.S., there is no law on the books that gives people the right to paid vacations. A May 2004 study by the online travel company Expedia.com found that at least 30 percent of workers would give their vacation time back to the company. In all, they estimate that workers will return 415 million days in a year. Some people have proudly told me they have surplus vacation time they can’t use because they work so much, they don’t have time to take off. I don’t admire their dedication; I marvel at their foolishness.

For more information, visit The Productivity Pro.

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