Why Must We Work So Hard Before Vacation?

Ah, summer. That special time of year when many workers escape their office for travel and time with loved ones—right after they scramble to get a bunch of stuff done before dashing to the airport.

Time off is a treasure, but people often have to work practically twice as hard to prepare for it. There are projects to get ahead on, meetings to have about how to do tasks that you usually handle, requests to field from co-workers who know they soon won’t be able to reach you, and elaborate, choose-your-own- adventure out-of-office replies to write. People can work so intensely in the period leading up to being offline that they need, well, a vacation to recover from it.

The pre-vacation period doesn’t have to play out like this. Jennifer Petriglieri, an organizational-behavior professor at the French business school INSEAD, told me that in the work culture of some countries, such as France and Italy, the week before a vacation is generally not much more stressful than any other. “Of course, there is still the sense that ‘there’s a couple things I want to finish’—there might be a last-minute rush, but nowhere near the same extent as in the US,” she said.

The key difference, in her mind, is how American businesses regard leisure time. “There’s a sense that you’re doing something naughty by going on holiday” and not contributing at work, Petriglieri said. This feeling of guilt can lead vacation takers to work extra hard in the lead-up to time off, in the hopes of counteracting a productivity dip while they’re out and limiting the amount of slack their co-workers will be expected to pick up in their absence.

This reaction would be unusual in much of Europe, Petriglieri said. Particularly in the summertime, there is an understanding that time off means reduced output and that things will take longer to get done; the rest of the year, there is a recognition that people need vacations to recharge. (Petriglieri told me that when she lived in the US, her family took a two-week vacation, and people thought it was long; in France, they took a longer vacation, and people would say, “Only three weeks? Why not four ?”)

Office work seems particularly vulnerable to the pre-vacation rush because it can typically be done in advance; in many other realms, working more intensely before a vacation would do little to boost productivity while you’re out. And although this phenomenon seems largely a by-product of America’s overbearing culture of productivity, the processes behind office work may contribute to it as well. “I think a big problem with the way work is set up is that it very often capitalizes on people’s tacit knowledge,” Brad Aeon, a management-sciences professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, told me. “If you were to leave and you were a key person in the company, your colleagues wouldn’t know how to deal with a particular situation.” As a result, on top of doing their normal job, people can get bogged down before a vacation with the time-consuming work of explaining to others how to handle everything when they’re out.

Some of the pressure that leads to a last-minute crunch may be coming from a desire not to leave tasks unfinished. According to Laura Giurge, a behavioral-science professor at the London School of Economics, many workers feel as though they must vanquish their entire to-do list in order to fully unplug from work and enjoy their vacation. “Some things we think we need to finish before the holidays,” Giurge told me, “but then we ask, ‘When does it actually need to be finished?’ And it turns out, probably two months from now.”

Surely some of this completist impulse is symptomatic of a culture that says people must first work in order to, as Giurge put it, be “deserving” of leisure. But some of it is psychological—having unfinished tasks can be mentally uncomfortable. In the words of one academic paper, it can “trigger an inner tension, stemming from the need for closure.”

Another contributor to the pre-vacation pileup is a more general time-management phenomenon known as “deadline rush”—the idea that people tackle many tasks shortly before they need to be completed. Aeon suggested that, with the single deadline of a vacation closing in on multiple tasks, some last-minute stress isn’t unusual.

Whatever the underlying cause, a heavier workload can dampen people’s happiness during the run-up to a vacation, according to some of the research on time off and well-being. One study published in 2013 found that women in particular faced a “double burden” of pre-trip activity both at work and at home. Thankfully, research has found that vacations spark feelings of anticipation that lift people’s well-being—although that lift can be canceled out by a frenzied work environment.

This is no way to live or work. In Petriglieri’s view, the problem is primarily a cultural one, although shifting a company’s culture is more manageable than shifting an entire society’s. She thinks that a business’s leaders can indirectly make the week before a vacation less frantic by presenting a different message about time off. They can be open about taking it themselves, emphasize that rest is vital, and explain that a drop-off in productivity is understandable and expected when you’re out of the office. (If they don’t actually believe those things, that’s a separate problem.)

Aeon and Giurge agreed that cultural change is key, and also recommended tinkering with some aspects of work itself to ease the burden. Aeon suggested codifying more business processes, in the form of manuals or wikis, so that any one worker’s responsibilities are easier to hand off. More simply, he said, companies could taper off employees’ workloads in the days before a vacation, or at least assign them a higher proportion of short-term tasks that can be completed before they head out.

And Giurge suggested a fix inspired by something she’d recently heard while conducting a research study at a company. In an interview, one of the workers told Giurge that, in order to create uninterrupted time to catch up on important work tasks, they canceled the last two days of their trip but did not tell any co-workers. To avoid the kind of pressure that would make someone cut their vacation short just to catch up on assignments before officially returning to work, maybe, Giurge thought, it would be helpful to have an official day on either end of a long vacation that’s blocked off for easing into and out of time off.

To a country that prizes relentless productivity, easing in and out of vacation and tapering off workloads might sound decadent. But taking a vacation shouldn’t mean working twice as hard to earn it.

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