At this very moment, as I write this, I am visiting my daughter and my grand kids for Christmas. I am on “vacation.” I have been on vacation for a week, and will continue to be on vacation for another week. However, I have carried my phone with me the entire time, even while at the movies. My phone notifies me of any incoming emails for three different accounts. During the last week I have also logged in to my client’s system and handled several different database issues. As a consultant, part of my job is to write blog posts periodically, so even writing this is work. The question is: am I really on vacation?

Unplug

Could you unplug here?

I’m not complaining. Really, I’m not. I am enjoying my vacation despite the work interruptions. I might be whining a little bit (just a little), but I’ve made my own choices. I could easily get a job making less money at a place where little or no on-call is required. I’ve had jobs like that before. I also knew when I made the career choice to jump from developer to DBA that I was stepping into the wonderful world of IT support.

All that said, I still reflect on the best vacation I’ve ever had. I took an Alaskan cruise with my wife and kids. An hour after leaving port all signal to my phone was gone. It was long enough ago that there was no WiFi on the boat, so I was completely unplugged. I turned off my phone, put it in my suitcase, and for seven blissful days I was completely unencumbered with thoughts of work and other worldly concerns. It was reminiscent of the ‘70s. No pager, no mobile phone, no emails, no text messages, no Twitter, no Facebook. Talk to me when I get back. It was awesome.

There are thousands of articles (here is one) on the Internet that discuss the mental, physical, creative, and regenerative benefits of an unplugged vacation, so I won’t regurgitate that here. But, a survey by the U.S. Travel Association found that 40% of Americans are not taking all the vacation time they earn. The survey says that there are many reasons for this, ranging from fear that they will be viewed as a less than dedicated employee to an over-inflated sense of self importance, a.k.a. “Nobody else can do what I do!” Unfortunately there are times when there is more truth to this than there should be.

For instance, I mentioned above that I worked on a client’s system this last week during my vacation. Well, this particular client had both of their DBAs leave the company in the last few months, and, as it turns out, I am actually the only person currently employed at the company who can do what I do. Also, many of us have had bosses who, whether they intend to or not, make you feel like you are being disloyal if you take the vacation that is your due.

So the question is: how do we—the collective “we” known as IT support—unplug and take a real vacation? Can we? I believe the answer to this is yes, we can. However, we have to want it and we have to work at it. If we wait for the company we work for to make it happen, unless we work for a small number of progressively thinking companies (like this one), it is not likely to happen.

Here are some suggestions that may help:

    • Schedule your vacations well in advance. Let everyone know that not only will you be on vacation, but you will be mostly unavailable. Some may have heartburn over this, but stick to your guns as much as possible. Let them know it is important to you.
    • Cross train: Make sure there is somebody else to do what you do when you are not there. We tend to have projects and/or responsibilities that are “ours.” We take ownership and we are often not very good at sharing. Get over it, give it up, and make sure somebody else at your organization can take it over. Sooner or later you’re going to move on and somebody else will have to take it anyway. If you are the sole DBA, see if you can get the company to train a system admin or two on basic DBA tasks like backups and disk space management. This will require documentation on your part.
    • Talk to your boss: As hard as it may be to believe, your boss is a person too! Tell her your desire for some time completely away from your job. Don’t just start complaining and expect her to oblige; go to her with a plan. Show her it can work. Most bosses want you to be happy and will do what they can to work it out.
    • Take small vacations: If it is wholly implausible for you to be unplugged for an entire week, try taking numerous three or four day weekends. You may still have to force the issue to make it happen, but if you can it will be easier to start extending these mini vacations into an entire week.
    • Get lost: Take some vacations in the mountains, or in the desert, or… maybe the South Pole—some place where the answer to the question “Can you hear me now?” is “No.” This will force the issue. If they start talking about getting you a sat phone, look for another job.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful and if you are not already finding ways to unplug you can find a way to do so in the near future. I realize the realities of today’s working environment, but if you don’t give it your best shot, then you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.