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We can all agree that this year has been unlike any other in recent memory. It’s no wonder so many of us are searching for ways to protect and prioritize our well-being, amidst all the stress, uncertainty, and unsettling headlines. Taking time off is one way — but an important way — to recharge, especially during challenging times. It’s a pathway to feeling more refreshed, rested, and even hopeful

But here we are, in August — in typical years, what might be known as peak vacation time — and those P.T.O. requests are M.I.A. Right now, I’m hearing from a lot of people that the idea of taking any time for themselves — whether it’s a day or a week — just feels weird

I get that. But I also believe it’s time to reset our expectations around what taking time off really means, and what purpose it serves. Yes, most of us are feeling tired and experiencing emotional ups and downs. A lot of things are not in our control. But that only makes it more important to take time off — from our jobs as well as from our daily routines — to just allow ourselves to be. And to breathe. And perhaps even to process everything that’s going on in our lives right now. 

Below are a few dilemmas I’ve heard recently, related to taking time off. Maybe some of these circumstances will resonate with you, or maybe you have different reasons for being reluctant to take time for yourself. Either way, try one or two of the strategies I mention, and see how you feel. Maybe taking care of yourself in this way will even give those around you permission to unplug when they see you doing it.

Q: I have all this unused paid time off (P.T.O.), but I can’t seem to wrap my head around taking time off if I can’t travel. And this year, because of COVID concerns, I’m reluctant to go anywhere. What should I do?

A: Here’s a funny thing I’ve experienced in the lead-up to my past annual vacations: It’s super stressful trying to get things done at home, delegate at work, and make sure everyone is prepared for when I’m gone. We all want to walk out the door feeling we’ve done all we can, and have tied up every loose end, and that takes work. Then we come back from these vacations, where we’ve crammed in sightseeing or activities or nightlife, and we feel so exhausted that we say things like, “I need a vacation from my vacation” — and the next day, we’re right back at work. 

This year, let yourself off the hook from the idea of a big travel moment, because the kind of “getaway” you can take — without actually going anywhere — might be even more restorative. Yes, we’ve been stuck in our homes and hometowns for a long period of time, and it’s completely natural to want a change of scenery. But if you can’t go somewhere else, reframe your perspective on where you are. Remind yourself that you don’t necessarily have to go somewhere else to unwind. If you can’t wrap your head around taking a week off at once, opt for an extended weekend. Or take a day or two off in the middle of the week. Think of it as an investment in self-care, minus the packing!

Q: My household’s income was reduced during the pandemic and finances are tight. How can I make the most use of my vacation time to recharge my batteries here at home?

A: Plan your ultimate staycation — make time for the things you love and rarely get to do. This year, Deloitte had a four-day “collective disconnect” weekend for the 4th of July. I stayed home over the break and read an entire book cover to cover. I was absorbed by the plot, I got to know the characters, and it was one of the most relaxing and rejuvenating things I have done in a while. If you can’t go anywhere, create your own fun at home. Plan movie marathons, read a book, take some virtual cooking classes. In fact, you could even choose a theme. For instance, say you’ve always wanted to go to Tuscany. You may not be visiting Italy this year, but you could take Italian cooking classes, watch classic Italian films, learn about Italian wines, and immerse yourself in another location and culture right in your own home. It can also be fun to involve the whole household, if you have roommates, a partner, or kids. 

Q: A lot of people in my workplace aren’t taking time off. How can I set a positive example for them and inspire others to take time off?

A: Recently, I heard a great idea from the Thrive team: When people return from time off at Thrive, they’re encouraged to share their story of what they did, to inspire others. You can start something like this with your own team, or simply lead by example. Take time off for yourself, even if you seem to be the trailblazer in the workplace. Be open and honest about the importance of time off, regardless of whether we’re in a pandemic or not. Make sure people don’t feel guilty. From a strategic standpoint, it’s also helpful to create a team P.T.O. schedule. I actually call it a Joy of Missing Out — JOMO — schedule. Team members can add their time off to the schedule, along with the name of whoever might be covering their work while they’re out, and maybe even some details of what they plan to do with their free time. This will empower everyone to take time off, as well as support one another. Make a thing out of it: Create fanfare before someone’s P.T.O., and invite them to share stories when they get back. 

Q: I’m a working parent, so even when I have a day off from work or the weekend comes, I’m spending all my time taking care of my family (especially with camps and daycares still closed in my area). How can I make time to replenish myself?

A: With a busy schedule and lots of people to take care of, finding time for yourself comes down to being intentional about even the smallest chunk of time. If you have a day off from work, can you create a schedule for yourself that allows you to take advantage of napping kids? Or might they hop on a video call or play an online game with friends for a half-hour? Can someone in your COVID social pod take your kids for a socially distanced walk? While you might typically use that time to throw in laundry, or order groceries for the week, make the decision to put off that chore for a day. Let the floors be dirty, let the laundry pile up (for now), and take that time for yourself without feeling guilty about it. If you’ve got older kids, delegate some of the tasks that monopolize your time even on a day off. Ask them to refill all the soap dispensers in the house, or plan dinner. Sharing those things takes the pressure off and frees up precious hours for you to spend on yourself. 

Q: I’m self-employed, so there is no “time off” for me, especially now that we’re in an economic crisis and I’m worried my usual gigs might dry up. How can I still feel like I’m “getting away”?  

A: First, let me assure you that you’re not alone in your fears. During these economically challenging times, a lot of people are worrying about gigs drying up, or even unemployed and looking for a job. Those stressors can make it even harder to give yourself permission to take time off. 

In this case, what you might find helpful is carefully looking at your schedule for micro opportunities for rest and recharging. Consider how to break up your time so that you’re present and engaged in your work every day while also scheduling small amounts of time for yourself. Scheduling self-care like it’s your job is a great way to ensure it happens. 

Then, in those moments when you’ve planned to unplug, try to physically separate from your work to get the most out of your downtime. If you work out of a home office, for instance, shut the door and go to another room, or take a walk in your neighborhood if that’s a possibility. Last week, I made a plan to work Friday morning, then took the afternoon off. It wasn’t a lot of time, but I managed to sneak in a two-hour nap, which I never do. It told me just how much I needed to turn off, and I found it really valuable.  

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  • Jen Fisher

    Human Sustainability Leader at Deloitte and Editor-at-Large, Human Sustainability at Thrive Global

    Jen Fisher is a leading voice on the intersection of work, well-being, and purpose. Her mission is to help leaders move from the legacy mindset that well-being is solely the responsibility of the individual to the forward-thinking idea of human sustainability, which supports the long-term, collective well-being of individuals, organizations, climate, and society.  

    She’s the co-author of the bestselling, award-winning book, Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines, the Human Sustainability Editor-at-Large for Thrive Global, and the host of the WorkWell podcast series.

    As the first chief well-being officer of a professional services organization, Jen built and led the creation and execution of a pioneering holistic and inclusive well-being strategy that has received recognition from leading business media brands and associations.

    Jen is a frequent writer on issues impacting the workplace today, including the importance of mental health and social connection to workforce resilience, happiness, and productivity. Her work has been featured in CNBC, CNN, Fast Company, Fortune, Inc, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Harvard Business Review, among others.

    She’s a sought-after speaker and has been featured at events including TEDx, World Happiness Summit, Out & Equal Workplace Summit, Acumen Global Gathering, WorkHuman, The Atlantic Pursuit of Happiness event, and more. She’s also lectured at top universities across the country, including Harvard, Wake Forest, Duke, and George Mason.

    Jen is passionate about sharing her breast cancer and burnout recovery journeys to help others. She’s also a healthy lifestyle enthusiast, self-care champion, exercise fanatic, sleep advocate, and book nerd! Jen lives in Miami with her husband, Albert, and dog, Fiona.

    You can find her on LinkedIn or on Twitter and Instagram @JenFish23. You can also receive her personal insights and reflections by subscribing to her newsletter, "Thoughts on Being Well" @jenfisher.substack.com.