leadership

When was the last time you really took a break from work?

Anna O'Dea /

Years ago, there were days that all blurred into one. I’d finish the week with little recollection of conversations had, what I’d achieved, or what job seekers I’d placed in amazing roles.

I loved my job. I loved it so much that I worked round the clock. You see, recruitment, like any sales role, is fast paced and competitive. And the fear of losing a job to a competitor drove me to stay connected, 24/7. It also took priority ahead of personal relationships, which reflecting back, was a big mistake and huge learning curve.

Before I founded Agency Iceberg, I took two weeks off. I had resigned to launch my own business because I felt the recruitment industry needed a voice that would stand up for others, promote positive opportunities for women to address the gender gap, help parents find flexible roles and challenge the idea that recruitment was a ‘boys club’ or that talent agents will cut corners in any shape or form to make money.

It was also during this time I started doing things a little differently. I bought my first dog, Marlowe. I reconnected with friends that I had lost touch with from putting work first. I caught up with industry mentors to seek advice about launching my own business. And, after spending a few days recovering, I eventually started to feel my brain rewire itself and began ‘hearing’ conversations again!

Also, without being KPI driven, I didn’t need to check my phone as often. I wasn’t worried about missing out on client or talents’ urgent needs. My needs were put first. I started feeling calmer. I could concentrate for longer periods of time and recall conversations a week later. When my girlfriends and I caught up, I could relax and spend more time learning about their lives, rather than worrying when to get back to my desk and be reactive to other people’s needs.

After a few weeks of weeks rest and catching up with industry peers for advice and encouragement I felt that I was ready to focus on myself, my body (and lack of exercise and poor nutrition that needed to be seriously addressed) and my new professional goal: to start my own business.

If perspective was a performance enhancing drug, I’d be the first in line to sell it

In a 2010 survey of 1,700 global professional services workers, it was found that, “on average, workers report spending slightly more than half (51%) of their work day receiving and managing information, rather than actually using information to do their jobs”.

Furthermore, and perhaps more worryingly, “an average of half (51%) of all those surveyed in each country say that if the amount of information they receive continues to increase, they will soon reach a ‘breaking point’ at which they will be unable to handle any more”.

At what point do we learn to stop?

Unfortunately, many of us don’t. In 2014, 11% of Australians took no annual leave in 2014. Workplace perception around taking leave, leaving work on time, and what it means as a ‘productive worker’ weighs heavily on many workers, including those who come to Agency Iceberg offices feeling exhausted and on the verge of burnout.

In my own experience, I didn’t take annual leave because I felt guilty about it in the past. And when I did take leave, it wasn’t uncommon for employers to call me with urgent requests, so often I felt anxious, even when away from the office.

In Overwhelmed America: Why Don’t We Use Our Earned Leave?, the US Travel Association reviewed the factors contributing to Americans not taking paid leave. While a number of factors contribute to the findings, it suggests perhaps senior management plays a role in perpetuating myths that holidays are a ‘once a year’ goal.

“There is a striking disconnect between the importance that workers place on taking PTO [paid time off], and the ease with which they feel that they can take it. The central challenge is closing this gap”, the report said.

“Far too many employers do not encourage taking PTO (in policy and/or communications), and senior business leaders send mixed signals about the importance and benefit of taking PTO. Only 32% of workers say that their employer encourages taking PTO; 33% of senior business leaders either say nothing (19%) or only discuss the merits of taking PTO once a year (14%).”

Given that Australia has the third highest amount of average annual leave, behind countries such as the UK and Sweden, we aren’t lacking for options.

So why aren’t we taking leave more regularly, instead of when we’re nearly out of juice?

Well, as the Overwhelmed America report indicates, perhaps it is less about official policy, and more about how whether employees worry they’ll be ill perceived if they take regular breaks; the workload to manage while away; and that the business might actually fall over if they do hit pause.

The report writes, “the top barriers to taking PTO are a ‘mountain of work’ (40% difficult to take PTO), nobody else can do the work (35%), cannot afford it (33%), and taking time gets harder to do the higher up you go (33%) … Senior business leaders think taking time off is harder the higher up you go (56% to 28% for employees), that nobody else can do the work (54% to 31%), and that they would come back to a mountain of work (54% to 37%).”

The idea that ‘no one else can do the work’ is a theme that I have felt very deeply in the past. There were years when I felt if I missed a day of work, there wasn’t anyone else in the business who could do the deal. It’s only looking back now, I realise how devoid of reality that really was. My colleagues were so darned good at their jobs, what I was actually worried about was missing out on a deal myself.

If you’re a top performer, the business will certainly miss you. But, as I’ve learned for myself, if you have failed to create a workflow that others can pick up in the occasion you get hit by a bus, or, your employer is not committed to resourcing regular leave, maybe there’s something in our work DNA we need to seriously rethink.

There’s a lot to be said for the impact to productivity and motivation when employers build in reflection and decompression time. In addition to cognitive benefits, regular breaks promote decreased stress levels, higher productivity levels, intensified concentration levels, ability to regulate emotions and deal with stress at work, and the ability to delegate more effectively.

Experience has told me, as countless books and studies do, the more regularly we prioritise rest and rejuvenation, the most effective and impactful we will be at work, as well as happier, and we can actually enjoy each other’s company every day.

Since my career break, I’ve made a commitment to not only lead by example by taking quarterly breaks, but to actively encourage my team to make plans every three months to get out of the office. I often sit down with my team during our weekly WIPs and openly discuss travel plans for the year to let them know that it’s okay to have a plan your personal life and enjoy it! You don’t need to tip-toe around the office and quietly plan your annual leave.  

There are 365 days in the year, 249 workdays, and 20 annual leave days up for grabs in Australia. How are you going to spend yours?

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Anna O'Dea

Anna O’Dea is founder and director of Agency Iceberg

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