October 23, 2012

Work-Life Balance: Promoting a Vacation-Friendly Firm

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March 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 2| Page 62


Work-Life Balance: Promoting a Vacation-Friendly Firm

Encouraging the right to recharge.

How can you maintain your productivity and your edge in the legal profession? Go on a vacation. Yes, taking a break from work—and encouraging those you supervise to do the same—can be extremely beneficial to your law practice.

There’s a lot of talk about the lack of work-life balance in the profession, and this includes the lack of vacation time. In fact, survey after survey shows that overall in the United States, we lag surprisingly behind in vacation time compared to other parts of the world, including Europe, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. But even in organizations that offer good vacation policies, many professionals have a hard time taking a holiday.

I’ve met many lawyers who tell me they don’t have time to take vacations because of demands from clients or high billable-hour requirements. In addition, more than a few fear that if they do take time off, they’ll be viewed as less motivated and focused than their counterparts—something that clearly can impact their future success with particular employers. Yet the result of not taking time away from work shows in the statistics on the profession, which suffers a high rate of burnout and depression. So wouldn’t retention, productivity and career satisfaction be positively affected if employees were encouraged to take more vacation time? Let’s take a look.


Making the Case for Vacations

Webster’s defines vacation as “a period of rest and freedom from work, study, etc.” It’s important to look closely at the words “freedom from work.” For most of us, laptops, BlackBerrys and other remote tools mean that we have easy—and continuous—access to and from the office, so we rarely have true “freedom from work.” Work creeps in, even while we’re away. And yet having complete time away would be the healthiest step we could take.

According to WebMD.com, the results of being vacation-deprived include: “burnout, reduced productivity, diminished creativity, failed relationships, stress, or stress-related ailments such as depression, heart disease or stomach ulcers.” Businesses (and, yes, that includes law firms) lose a lot of money each year because of employee illnesses connected to the stress of overwork. In addition, many individuals leave their law firms owing to the high demands of the profession and the inability to achieve the work-life balance they desire. For many firms, this amounts to losses in the six-figure range for every lawyer they need to replace.

On the flip side of the coin, morale, productivity, health, energy and creativity are given a boost by taking vacations. Among the wealth of supporting data, a recent survey by Expedia.com found that 84 percent of respondents reported feeling “rejuvenated and reconnected with family and friends after a vacation, and 80 percent reported having a more positive outlook about their jobs when they take time away.”

The truth of the matter is that life is about much more than work, and if individuals don’t get time away to experience those other aspects of life, they are bound to feel the negative impacts.

So in our workaholic culture, how do managers and others create an environment where taking time off is recognized—and actually encouraged—as a way to promote a healthier and more productive workplace?


A Supervisor’s Approach to Encouraging Recharging

There will be various opinions on the subject, but one effective way comes to us through the example of Jay
Henderson, a managing partner of the Chicago office of Pricewaterhouse-
Coopers, whose story was reported in BusinessWeek’s October 3, 2005, issue. (To read the full article, click here.) Henderson had stressed the importance of taking a vacation by writing a detailed set of guidelines for supervisors and employees, pointedly titled “How to Take a Vacation.” He published the guidelines in a company newsletter titled Chicago Wrap, which was sent to 1,400 employees in PWC’s Chicago office. Why do this? Because, as he told BusinessWeek, “Vacations can improve the quality of lives and the quality of the professional services we offer if you come back focused and recharged.”

Henderson’s guidelines were organized into three parts: “Partners and Supervisors—Our Commitment,” “All of Us—Your Commitment” and “Best Vacation Practices.” Here is an excerpt from the section for partners and supervisors, which makes a good road map for legal employers as well:

• As partners or supervisors, we will be role models, taking uninterrupted vacations and supporting others to do the same. When you plan time off, we will ask what support and advance preparation we can provide to ensure your vacation is unencumbered.

• We will inform our clients of scheduled vacations and manage their expectations around the importance of vacations and time off for our staff. We will not call individuals on vacation, except in a true emergency.

• We will do everything possible to not ask that vacations be canceled or altered.

• We will refrain from discussions that might suggest that work undertaken while on vacation is expected, acceptable, or a best practice.

• We will not expect participation in conference calls, returning voice mails or e-mails during vacation.

In his corresponding guidelines for employees, Henderson also stressed the importance of advance-planning discussions between employees and supervisors so that they share responsibility for ensuring vacation plans meet with success. As he pointed out under his “Best Vacation Practices” guidelines, “Preparation is everything.” And among his particular best practices to highlight, here are three more for the vacationing legal professional to consider:

• Try not to call the office to discuss business matters or check voice mail or e-mail. You are either on vacation or you’re at work; you shouldn’t try to be in two places at one time.

• Trust your colleagues to follow through on your behalf.

• Lose the guilt over taking time off. Have as much respect for your personal life as you do for your
professional life.


Using Time Off to Promote Business Success

Mr. Henderson obviously understands the importance of vacation time as it relates to the success of a business and the overall satisfaction of employees. None of us can maintain a high level of energy, creativity and productivity without a real break from our work, regardless of how much we love the work we do. Enjoying both our work and personal lives is what keeps us satisfied, healthy and productive.

About the Author

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent ( ABA, 2000).