Here at =mc we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this regular feature we share some of those challenges, and our advice, for dealing with them.
This time, the issue comes from a manager with a very common challenge: holidays and the impact they have on workload
Hey there =mc. I’m getting in touch because I seem to have the same problem every time I go on a long period of leave. I don’t mean just taking a long weekend or bank holidays. I mean when I take a couple of weeks off with the family. I’ve worked in different organisations, and it still keeps happening. I am good at my job and most of the time feel good about work. But holidays leave me feeling bad. I feel totally panicked before I take time off. And then it feels so pointless because when I get back there it all is, still piled up for me. My inbox will be bursting, colleagues won’t have followed up on things, there always seems to be so much to catch up on. It is very frustrating. I’m fortunate enough to work term time hours these days, and yet the problem persists. I work at a university in a professional services role, so you’d think non-semester times would be quieter, but my internal customers seem to be just as demanding all year round. As a parent with school age kids, I tend to take time off around Easter, take a longer break in summer and then there’s winter breaks too. But there is this mountain to climb before I go. I try and get everything done so it’s all neat and easy to manage for my colleagues whilst I’m away, and so that I’m not drowning when I get back. I always end up working really long hours the week before, so I’m shattered by the time I’m actually on holiday. Then, the day before going back to work, I check my emails and I feel utterly overwhelmed. I start feeling that ‘back to school’ anxiety – ruining both the end of my holiday and meaning I’m just as stressed out when I’m back at work. If I didn’t have kids, I’m starting to wonder if I’d even bother taking a break, when it doesn’t feel like a break at all. What can I do?
Dear busy manager, I feel your pain! I think at some point or another we have all experienced this. What strikes me from your email is that you have regular breaks, which is fantastic. You have a work pattern that suits your current needs and can therefore plan ahead. I wonder if you are taking a long-term view when planning your workload? Do you take into account your capacity over the whole year when setting your goals or objectives? Considering you know when these pinch points are coming, are there things you can do in advance, starting at three months before your next break, to even out your workload? Think of it as flattening your curve; so that the run up isn’t quite so steep – it may still be a hill, but less of a mountain.
Hello manager! I’m sorry you are experiencing this, and this workload anxiety is ruining your breaks. I noticed you said you like to make things all neat and tidy before your leave. Is this strictly necessary? It is wonderful that you want to protect your team, however it is also worth remembering that your deliverables are also a team effort. Can you delegate some tasks to them, or train them to cover you when you are away? Better yet, are there things you are doing that can simply wait? This doesn’t mean you are being unhelpful or saying no to your internal stakeholders. But perhaps you can say ‘Yes, I can do that for you – when I’m back from leave’. You may need to manage expectations a bit more with your customers, help them to understand that you are not always available. Can you plan ahead together? As Laura says, by delegating and pushing back a bit you can reduce that climb.
Dear University Manager. Holidays are important for your family, and for you too. You have every right to take time off, and to take a brain break from work. Having work on your mind for those first few and last few days of your holiday will eat into precious time with your loved ones. You seem to have gotten into an email checking habit. Can you break this? Can you stop yourself from checking emails until your first day back, instead of the night before? There are a couple of useful techniques for this. One option could be to block out the first half of the first day back. Think of this as your catch-up time. Some of this will be time just to process emails, and maybe include a ‘hand-back’ meeting with the team. Use this to establish urgent priorities, and for reviewing what has worked perfectly well in your absence. Another trick I’ve seen people use is to ask a colleague to help – get them to change your password and not tell you what it is until you are back. Then you can’t log on! That won’t work everywhere, but it is important to realise checking your emails is work, and not something you should feel compelled to do on your days off.
Hi there busy manager. I used to have exactly this same problem, so I totally get it. My holiday mountain also followed me from job to job. What I have learned is that by trying to get everything done before a holiday, I was setting myself up to fail. The world didn’t stop just because I wasn’t there, so it was a false exercise trying to get things all in order. It told other people that I would always say yes, and get things done for them. My inconvenience was less important than their disappointment! This isn’t true, it was just how I saw it. What helped was realising the impact I was having on others. As a manager, you are a role model. By working long hours, you are telling your team that is what they need to do to be successful. By taking it all on yourself and not delegating, you are stopping them from learning and growing. By meeting your customer demands, no matter what, you are setting a level of high expectation. If this all feels impossible, you may find it useful to talk to your manager about realistic expectations; and how they could support you. Make room for your breaks, you totally deserve them.