Many of the non-profit leaders I coach don’t feel that they are able to take off extended periods of time, even if their seniority, experience and employment agreements entitle them to multiple weeks of vacation. Many of them will take long weekends during the summer or a few days here and there to use up their allotted vacation time. These folks are often the ones who are most frazzled and the least resilient in their day to day work.

Taking real breaks (that is at least two weeks at a time) is an absolute necessity for nonprofit leaders to decompress, refresh, regroup and model appropriate behaviour for staff. The toll on the physical, emotional and mental health of workers who don’t take real breaks is measurable in poor performance, reduced efficiency and increased absenteeism due to illness.

Vacation - chairs2A little self-reflection is in order here. If a leader feels they can’t take real time off, is it a control issue? Or is it fear of criticism by the Board, a supervisor or co-workers? Are there gaps in staffing that the leader is filling instead of hiring or training others? Whatever the reason, by not taking breaks, the nonprofit leader is not just harming herself, but prohibiting other staff members from growing and developing. Developing potential new leaders is central to the role of leadership and leaders who take real breaks allow others to experience the responsibility and accountability of being in charge.

The leader who doesn’t walk the talk of life work balance by taking real breaks, also models confusing behaviour for his staff. A manager who instructs the staff to leave by 6:00pm and then stays until 8:00pm himself makes staff feel that they aren’t living up to the expectations of their boss. And if the boss hasn’t taken a real vacation in three years, is it really OK for a staff member to do it without fear?

While it may not actually be possible to take the full vacation allotment in one shot, any organization should be able to handle the absence of their key staff person for at least two weeks. As part of the annual work plan, the nonprofit leader and her board or supervisor should take a look at the calendar and slot in her vacation weeks. The calendar can always be adjusted or tweaked down the road if need be, but it is of great comfort to be able to look at the calendar and know that some time away is coming. It is also helpful to be able to say no to requests received because vacation is already scheduled at that time. And it is much easier than trying to slot two weeks into an already full calendar halfway through the year.

Once the manager has her time slotted, it’s appropriate for her to ensure that her reports are identifying their time for a real break as well. Staff may need genuine encouragement to understand that it isn’t just a benefit to them that they take their vacation time, but a requirement of the organization that wants its staff to be rested, renewed and ready for what comes next.

Let us know your best tips for ensuring real breaks are taken at your organization. We look forward to sharing your ideas!