Leaders take the lead and set the example

In the recent Republican presidential nominee debates, Governor Jeb Bush proudly proclaimed he has not taken more than a week off from work in over thirty years. He extolled the virtues of a strong work ethic as one of the characteristics that would make him best suited to the job as President. To be fair, Bush was also supporting one of his main campaign themes that Americans need to increase productivity, starting with a stronger work ethic; meaning longer work hours and less vacation time. This, he argues, could be one of the key driving forces behind The United States’ return to being a leader among industrialized nations and improving our economy.

However, many experts would disagree on principle that a week of vacation per year is sufficient to recharge emotionally and physically. This is particularly the case for individuals in high stress professions. In fact, productivity, creativity and overall health significantly improve with regular opportunities to completely unplug. But that is the key: completely unplug to recharge. The average American can relate to the phrase “unplug”, as technology and the immediacy brought on by its prominence in our home, social and work environment has taken a whole new level to the inability to check out and recharge. We as a society are “on demand”.

The argument being made by health and psychology professionals for regularly “checking out” does not necessarily entail longer vacations than the average American is already afforded. It refers more specifically to the quality of time being spent away from the work place and the other daily stresses of life. The reality of the economic ladder is that professionals in higher paying jobs often bear much greater responsibilities, many of which “they can’t leave at the office”. The reality of the workforce today, is climbing up the ladder generally entails wearing more hats as the person you replaced on the way up. Automation, technology, downsizing and a tough economy have contributed to that. Leaving your apron at the diner after a long day sounds appealing by comparison.

Certainly a higher paycheck may enable fancier vacations, but do these more extravagant getaways truly achieve the gold standard of relaxation if the smartphone is a constant companion out of “necessity”; as the only way the executive in question can justify being out of the office? By definition, leaders of industry, particularly in these times of global interconnectedness and economic challenges, are tasked with regularly discovering innovative solutions to grow or salvage their own industries, while strategizing on synergies to cross barriers with other industries to continue growth, expansion and maintain relevance in a constantly evolving global marketplace. The stakes continue to rise.

While individuals with elevated responsibilities may experience different daily stressors as a result of their position, the concept of unplugging and checking out at regular intervals is important for all individuals. Everyone faces unique challenges and responsibilities leading to stress and anxiety relative to their own situation, related to everything from home life, work, finances and health. Often times the very act of planning and saving for a special vacation creates its own set of stressors that end up eliminating the benefits of taking it. While it is important to “get away”, regular opportunities to relax and refresh, by definition, need to be incorporated in a way that truly achieves the goal. The benefits and rewards are better health, physically and mentally, and improved productivity in work and daily life routines.

The initial focus on leaders of industry, whether large or small, is the sense of responsibility that accompanies their role and diminishes their perceived ability to spend time away. Oftentimes, this perception becomes reality, and leaders have cultivated an environment and culture that demands accessibility and immediacy in communication at all times, which not only elevates the stress level of the workplace but diminishes the value of life away from work. This thinking is nearly abusing and misusing technology; rather than a beneficial tool it becomes a co-conspirator in attacking the mental and physical health of each employee, starting from the top. Any productive and successful manager or team has the same need to regroup and regenerate as their company’s leader, if they are to effectively continue on a positive career path trajectory. The owner of a small business is coping with many of the same challenges as the titans of industry, operating on a different scale, held to different measures and unique to their marketplace, yet the stress and challenges translate equally.

From a purely scientifically level, recharging in order to maintain proper stress levels is critical to the mind body connection. Chronic elevated stress levels result in a range of deleterious physical consequences; from a compromised immune system, to weight gain, to depression and developmental impairment. Elevated stress levels have a direct correlation to chronic skin conditions, hair loss and a wide range of life threatening diseases. The body’s production of cortisol in reaction to an environmental stressor does have benefits in short spurts, as its primary target is metabolic and activates the body to protect itself in life threatening situations. Anxiety is in the eye of the beholder. Stress becomes particularly harmful when it is long lasting, and a “benign” or non- life threatening stress is equally taxing on the body; how an individual perceives an environment or situation is absolutely unique.

Escaping for a week or more a few times each a year, without technology distractions to make one reachable by the outside world, may be impractical and actually impossible for many given their real life work situations. Harvard Business School Leslie Perlow authored the book “Sleeping with your Smarphone” which reinforces the argument that time away from technology makes people more creative, innovative and productive. In a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Perlow states “Everybody is bombarded all the time these days. The more senior you are, the more you perceive “there’s nobody but me”.” In this same article, some top Executives shared their own simple strategies, seemingly small acts, that have enabled them to regularly “unplug” with minor interruption to a typical work day. Why? Because they have experienced an immediate reward, in the form of inspired thinking and spike in productivity.

Much of their advice is easily translated and applicable to any working professional.

The CEO of Zillow turns off his company email for a 24 hour stretch each week. Jim Moffatt, the CEO of Deloitte Consulting, is very public about his conscious effort to periodically step away from smartphones, technology and being accessible, as a way to impart on employees that it is important to have a life outside of work. Regularly taking 10 days off with his family in the summer, Moffatt credits this time to tune out recharge with enabling him to cut through “fog and clutter”, resulting in the tendency to “think bigger” and “think broader”. While the disconnect allows for executives to recharge, perhaps allowing for even more inspired leadership, one of the side benefits is the growth opportunity for colleagues and team members as they exercise more power and initiative in taking on additional responsibilities. One internet executive summed up his December unplugging experience as “humbling”, as after a month free of all social media and email, he plugged back in to find out that yes, the world was working quite well without him.