A postcard that reads, "Greetings from Wisconsin".

Give each other the space to take time off

A message from Lois Brooks, vice provost for information technology and chief information officer:

I saw a disturbing stat in an article the other day. A national study found that 40% of employees forfeit days that are part of their compensation.

That study was from 2014, so trends may have changed. But a 2020 study found that a majority of Americans shortened or postponed their vacations during the pandemic. I did so and saw many colleagues do the same.

It got me thinking that this is likely happening more widely here in DoIT. UW–Madison employees are certainly not immune to national trends, and we know from past Climate Surveys that too many of our colleagues at times find themselves feeling overworked or burned out. After 3 years of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d be surprised if we didn’t have staff who felt worn thin and unable to use the paid time they’ve earned.

So as the university’s summer recess approaches, I thought I’d devote some space here to encouraging everyone to use your paid time off and find ways to remove barriers that keep our colleagues from using the time they’re entitled to.

Many studies show that taking time off is important for our physical and mental well-being. It reduces stress, increases happiness and helps prevent burnout. Studies have shown that vacations can improve heart health and help reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome.

All of that is pretty intuitive, but research has also shown—contrary to what our workaholic culture would have you believe—that people who take more time off are also more productive and more creative in their work, and are more likely to receive raises and advance in their careers.

So what’s keeping us from taking our time off? I posed this question during my April 21 office hours and got a bunch of responses.

One notable answer was outages. Anyone who’s worked in IT has experienced lost nights and weekends chasing outages. That’s less of an issue here at UW–Madison relative to many of our peer institutions, and in DoIT our strong process management keeps unplanned outages to a minimum. But I want to acknowledge that outages can be a disruptor.

However, I don’t want outages—or the fear of outages—to cause anyone in DoIT to avoid taking time off. So let’s work on that. Think about what you can do to help back up your colleagues and give them the space to unplug.

People also reported working even while on vacation—usually checking email—to avoid returning to a mountain of work. And while I’ve done the same on rare occasions, I mostly make a point of completely unplugging while on vacation. If I read my email in the morning and then go out for a hike or something, my mind just doesn’t quiet down. It stays in that working headspace all day. So I disconnect from work fully to give myself a break. I even turn off alerts on my phone. If possible, I try to schedule a few hours of quiet time on my first day back from vacation to process the backlog of emails. I encourage you all to do the same.

We also can help each other take time off. If your team has people who are “always on,” I encourage you to work together to find ways as a team to help everyone feel comfortable with high-quality time off.

For that matter, think about traveling somewhere that expands your mind or trying something new. I loved hearing about some of the fantastic places our colleagues have visited. Even a day trip or staycation can have measurable benefits when you spend time in nature. Research by UW–Madison Professor Richard Davidson has shown that spending as little as 10 minutes in nature can have a measurable positive effect on the brain.

So go ahead and book that vacation you’ve been thinking about and update your calendar. Your health and career will thank you for it.