When it comes to the subject of leadership, you’ll find a spectrum of opinions on pretty much every aspect. Apart from one: taking a break.
It’s an unequivocal fact - like the effects of doing exercise or eating kale - that taking a break as a leader is good for you, something which is crucial both for your business and yourself. But despite knowing this, how many business leaders actually take time out and switch off from work?
The answer to this depends partly on where you live. Our recent US and UK Confidence Index surveys show that how business leaders approach vacations is influenced by both cultural and financial factors. So, who’s better at holidaying; UK or US business leaders?
What defines a holiday? While all business leaders technically spend time doing other things or being away from the office, if they’re not actually switching off, is it really a break?
In a hyper-connected world, truly logging off and stepping away is a major challenge, as highlighted by our US Confidence Index. Only 11% of US business leaders said they never engage in business activities like networking or client meetings at least some of the time while on vacation. That’s 89% that do, in some regard, take work with them.
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On this side of the Atlantic, the figures look a little healthier, with 29% of UK business leaders saying they find it difficult to completely switch off from work when on holiday. 36% reported that they still log onto email or do work-related activities during a break.
Although comparatively the UK seems a little better at taking a break, our surveys prove that business leaders are notoriously bad at switching off - whichever side of the pond they live on.
While it would be neat and easy to blame it all on technology, there are other, more subtle cultural factors which have made it increasingly hard for business leaders to switch off. One of these is our obsession with being productive all the time.
Whether we’re at work, at the gym, doing DIY or making our kids’ packed lunches, there’s pressure to always be doing something - specifically something which yields tangible results. This modern day malaise brings with it two side effects: an inability to stop; and, if we do manage to stop: guilt over ‘wasting time’.
When we’re on holiday, the compulsion to check emails, reply to messages or make phone calls may be facilitated by technology but it’s driven by our need to feel in control, engaged and productive. We need to feel like we’re always progressing or achieving something, that even in our designated downtime, we have something to show for it. Of course, it’s a false economy.
Nobody can or should feel the need to be productive all the time. This mindset leads to nothing good: specifically, it results in burnout, reduced productivity, decision fatigue, and even serious health problems. In short, it’s counterproductive. So, what’s the antidote? The very thing we’re terrified of: doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it.
In her book, ‘How to be Bored’, Eva Hoffman argues that doing nothing is vital to our health and wellbeing. She believes that a state of quiet repose is where we become more creative and find our true selves: ‘If we rush ceaselessly through activities without checking in on our moods or motives, we can lose track of ourselves; in a sense, we lose the ability to experience our experiences.’
Switching off properly gives you space and time to reflect. It can give you a fresh perspective on an old problem or inspiration for a new idea. Doing nothing can be the ultimate spark for creativity, imagination or intellectual reasoning - just ask Isaac Newton.
The Cambridge University student didn’t come up with the universal law of gravitation at a desk or in a lab or sat in a lecture hall. It actually happened during a period of prolonged boredom.
An outbreak of bubonic plague meant the university had to be shut, forcing young Isaac to go home for a few months. With nothing to do, Newton spent hours seemingly achieving nothing, idly strolling through farmland, pondering why apples fell down instead of up. It turned out not to be such a waste of time after all.
Apart from firing up your inspiration, another benefit of switching off is being able to relax and focus on other aspects of your life, like friends and family. Being physically present isn’t the same as being mentally present, so it’s important to be mindful of how long you’re spending ‘working-not-working’.
Richard Branson recommends ditching your smartphone altogether: ‘I make sure that I disconnect by leaving my smartphone at home or in the hotel room for as long as possible - days, if I can - and bringing a notepad and pen with me instead.’
But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If going cold turkey for a few days is too stressful a prospect, setting aside an hour each day to check in is a good way to stay connected without work encroaching on your down time.
Our UK Confidence Index survey revealed that fewer than half (47%) of leaders took 25 days or more holiday last year, with 8% taking only 11 to 14 days.
In addition to this, a 2017 study found that 52% of UK SME leaders have five or fewer annual leave days a year; 21% took no time off whatsoever, and the remaining 31% took only between one and five days’ holiday. Why?
Business leaders are passionate about what they do. If you’ve built a business from the ground up, won clients, achieved growth, then stepping away - even for a few days - can seem like a stressful and frightening prospect.
For some, there’s the issue of being a superleader; always on, always active, always involved - how could the business possibly cope without you? The harsh truth is, if you feel your business can’t survive without you, it’s either a sign that your organisation isn’t structured properly, you don’t have the right people, or that your leadership style is far too ‘micro’ and not enough ‘macro’.
If you have a robust company model and a well-structured team who are good at their jobs, logic would deem that there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be able to delegate, step away and disconnect.
However, even with the best team and infrastructure in the world, this rarely happens. For most leaders in the US and UK, completely switching off for a week or even a few days is unthinkable, so what’s the prognosis?
Can business leaders ever switch off?
Probably not. You may have moments where you’re totally focused on something else, but as a leader, your business will never be far from your mind. And why wouldn’t it be? There’s a lot at stake.
If you’ve invested time and effort into building and nurturing a business, the sense of ownership and responsibility is huge. If things go badly wrong, how will you pay your staff? The buck stops with you, and with that knowledge comes significant pressure to always stay active and connected.
It’s a bit like having a child: you might drop them off at nursery, but during the day you’re always thinking about them - you may even call to see how they’re doing. You can never fully let go. So, as a business leader, how can you manage these feelings?
The most important thing you can do is to be conscious and mindful. Simply being aware of the importance of taking a break and how it can benefit you and your business will make it more likely that you’ll step away - without feeling guilty.
Holidays and breaks are often seen as an indulgence, so changing your perception is key. Remind yourself that every second of every day doesn’t need to be accounted for and that switching off is crucial if you want to be the best leader you can be.
Having said that, there also needs to be some acceptance of limitations. As long as you’re a leader, you’re unlikely to ever completely switch off and forget your responsibilities. Instead of fighting this fact, it should be more about how you manage it.
If you know you need to check in with work while on holiday, allocate specific times to do that. If you can’t resist checking emails all the time, challenge yourself by doing a Branson and leaving your smartphone behind for the day.
Compartmentalising in this way will allow you to have some proper downtime without either working too much or putting pressure on yourself to forget about work.
We talk a lot about our lives being split between the personal and professional, as if the two are neatly bisected, when in fact they necessarily overlap. You can’t just switch your brain into ‘work mode’ or ‘family mode’.
Trying (and probably failing) to do this is likely to elicit feelings of anxiety, guilt or failure - not so restful or relaxing. Of course doing nothing for a while is good for you, but if that then becomes the thing you’re painfully trying to ‘achieve’, what’s the point? Aiming for balance rather than absolutes is a much healthier attitude to switching off.
While there are variations between US and UK attitudes to taking a break, there’s not much in it. The personal challenges on both sides of the Atlantic are the same - we all struggle to let go, to step away from the tech, to give ourselves permission to do nothing. Ultimately, taking a proper break should be about being kind to yourself - whatever that looks like to you. So, accept the limitations, be mindful about how much time you spend working, and challenge the pressure to always be productive. You might be surprised by the results.
At Vistage we understand that being a leader is about more than just the work you do. If you want to find out more about our holistic approach to leadership, get in touch.