I am bad at taking vacations.
I’m one of those people who are always doing something while doing something else. I’m writing an email in my head or pondering the best, most efficient way to synthesize a target compound or make a compelling argument to the leadership of my company.
I’m also one of those people whose work phones make an annoying sound when a new email arrives. Looking at my phone for new work emails is practically Pavlovian now, and I wish I could stop. With business partners around the globe, I can get that little jolt of dopamine anytime I like. At one point in time, I kept my phone on my bedside table next to my head when I slept. I am a sound sleeper, so I knew I had a problem when I found myself waking up in the middle of the night to check my work email.
So it’s with some trepidation that I am attending a camp in the woods with my family. In true summer camp fashion, there will be games, sing-alongs, cookouts, swimming, and hiking. I am looking forward to time outdoors with my family. I am not, however, looking forward to the primary rule of the camp: no electronic devices of any kind. My two phones will be in the main lodge, far from the sleeping areas.
My children are ecstatic about attending this camp. And I am excited about spending time with them. So why am I feeling so uneasy? Why can’t I unplug from my work and my devices?
It is the pause in the flow of work that gives me anxiety. If I’m not at work, there are chemicals that aren’t stirring, and there are spectra not being taken. If I’m not answering emails, customers are not being responded to, and certificates of analyses aren’t being sent. Yes, coworkers can help while I am gone, but it’s not me doing the work.
I wonder if this insecurity is unique to people of my generation who were looking for work during the depths of the Great Recession. I wonder if people who have faced a difficult time getting hired or have experienced being laid off view vacation as more of a double-edged sword than the rest of us. It takes some work to dismiss that sneaking suspicion that if I leave for a week or two, I might come back to no job at all. I don’t think that’s true, but I would be lying if I said the thought hasn’t crossed my mind over the years.
My company’s European customers have traditions that have challenged my conception of vacation. Often, European manufacturing plants will shut down in August, which may be a little difficult for a US worker to understand. While workers in the US generally wouldn’t schedule a key meeting right before or after a major holiday, there is probably a day or two around a holiday in which some work could get done. Not so for vacation time in France or Italy, as we have been told, “Don’t have the shipment arrive before Aug. 30; there will be no one at the plant to receive it.” A declaration like that emphasizes the seeming sanctity of that summer break.
There is an odd aspect of vacation that I look forward to—the clarity that stepping away from work can provide. Every day and every week has tasks that are both essential and require immediate attention—the product must be distilled, the purchase orders need to be entered, and the customer phone calls need to be answered. I deeply enjoy the distance that vacation offers to think about strategy (What are we trying to do?) and logistics (What tools do we have to get there?). The drive to the vacation rental is my time to think big thoughts.
I know that a week off with my family will be a good thing for me. I’ll get a chance to take some afternoon naps in the sun and a chance to play with my kids outdoors. There are opportunity costs of work, and time with one’s family is one of those. I’ll pack my bags and try to turn off my work phone. And hopefully, I’ll leave my insecurities back at the office.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.