6 Steps for Planning and Implementing Effective Extended Leave

Earlier in the week, our post was a reflection on why I will be taking a walkabout, or an extended amount of time away from work this fall.  Each person on our team will be taking four to six weeks off at some point within the next six months.  

Whether it is taking time for intentional rest, reflection, and/or deep work or going out on maternity or extended sick leave, stepping away from anything at work requires preparation beforehand in order for the time away and the people providing support during the time away to be a success. Here is a roadmap for doing so: 

1. Plan/proactively discuss with your team the timing of your absence and the roles and responsibilities they will have while you are away.  You can read more about my team’s discussion on the timing of my absence in the last post, but the next step in this for me has been thinking through and communicating with them about who will do what while I’m out. We will do the same as each person takes leave. Some things are natural, given that many of the projects I work on and the people I work with have at least two of our team members providing support.  There are some things where you may be the only person with a knowledge base for execution, so planning proactively gives you the time to provide cross-training, introductions, information, and or tools needed for success. 

2. Communicate proactively with the external contacts you interact with regularly that you will be out with.  For the past two weeks, I’ve emailed or called every client and/or potential client that I interact with to let them know that I’m going to be out, for how long, what this means in terms of what they should or shouldn’t expect from me (for example, I will not be checking email during this time), and who their new point of contact will be on our team.  I will say that in doing this, EVERYONE I’ve talked to has been supportive and encouraging in taking the time away.  They are appreciative of the heads-up and connection(s) with our team for the project to continue in my absence. 

3. Start saying “no” based on your scheduled time away.  In the past two weeks, I’ve said “no” to more things than I have in a long time.  Both personal and professional.  It really helps you realize how much stuff you say “yes” to without even thinking about it.  “Yes, my calendar is clear on the date you asked to meet with me, so yes, I’ll meet with you” happens a lot without a thought about whether or not the meeting is necessary or if you even want to meet with that person.  We commit to things without thinking about them and then wonder why we can’t find the time to do the most important things. It’s pretty liberating and reflective to take back your time. 

4. Set guardrails and systems around being able to maintain your no and the margins the time away should provide.  I know my email will be a problem for me. It is the mechanism in which I say yes to most things because most things come in the form of calendar invites via email or requests for this or that via email.  So, for me, I will not be checking and responding to emails while I’m out.  To ensure I do this, someone on my staff will be changing my email password for me on the day I go out.  She will also check the box once a week to make sure there are no emergencies she and the team need to tend to (this will help me maintain my sanity of not checking it) and I will set up an out of office reply explaining that I’m out, points of contact for specific needs, and when I will return.  You may not need to go to the extreme of getting someone to change your password (if you do, you have a lot more self-control than I do, because checking email is such a habit for me), but know yourself well enough to deploy the guardrails needed for maintaining the integrity of your leave. This may mean deleting social apps on your phone, disconnecting your wifi (or getting someone to change your wifi password), or setting standard times around the do not disturb feature on your phone.  Figure out what you need and solicit any help needed to do so. 

5. Reflect on what these planning exercises are telling you. As mentioned earlier, delegating responsibilities to others may help you realize they need to be cross-trained on a certain task or function to be successful.  Saying no because you’re going to be out may help you realize you need to say no indefinitely to certain things.  It may be telling you that you have a problem with your social media or email usage and need to get a healthy grip on it.  All these planning items can help you succeed in an absence and the reflection on them can help ensure long-term success upon your return. 

6. Reflect on the purpose of your time away and what you hope to accomplish in taking it.   Before you go out, write down two or three things you want to focus your time on while out and post them for yourself in the form of yes or no questions you will see every day. Mine are: 1) Did you rest and restore today? 2) Did you read/research and write/create content today based on your purpose? 3) Did you play with your kids today?  Don’t overload yourself with more than three to four questions.

Framing the questions in the second person as “you” has been shown to be helpful in training the brain to eliminate “chatter”. It gives your brain a word that naturally offers more grace than using the first person “I”.  Like the book, Chatter states, “Doing so (using ‘you’ to refer to yourself) is linked with less activation in the brain networks associated with rumination and leads to improved performance under stress, wiser thinking, and less negative emotion.” Some questions you may have if you’re recovering from surgery or bringing a newborn home may be: Did you rest today?  Did you do something to help your body recover today? Did you refrain from checking work email today?  You know what you need, so customize the questions for you. As you begin to heal and or accomplish what you want while you’re out, your questions may change. 

Finally, you may not be at liberty to decide if and when you get to take an extended time away from work.  But if you are a person in a role where you can impact policy at your workplace, consider how you might drive the conversation around the need for people to take more than a standard week or less of vacation annually and what business results it might achieve.  At the very least facilitating dialogue around how you can provide autonomy by structuring work differently (four day work weeks, hybrid work arrangements, mental health days, etc.) in order to impact workplace wellbeing and productivity could lead to substantial gains in recruitment and retention.  If you’d like more information on the research related to this, see our previous post on readings for reflection.

Mary Ila Ward

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