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Guest column: Taking time for ourselves

Americans are known for working too much.
Urszula Bunting

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After a year of uncertainties, fear, confusion, isolation and staying home due to the COVID-19 restrictions, many of us are more than ready to dive into a summer vacation. But how prepared are we to take a break from our responsibilities and give ourselves a chance to recover from the pandemic? How willing are we to take time off and take care of our health and wellbeing? How determined are we to turn off the laptops, silence the phones and set up an auto-email reply “gone to the beach”?

Americans are known for working too much. Most American workers work more than 40 hours per week. They go back to a full-time schedule after the statutory twelve -week-parental leave, work when they are sick and often don’t use their vacation time.

Other highly developed countries including France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan require their workers to take paid vacation time and offer extended maternity leave (16 -26 weeks in France paid with 100% paid, five months in Italy paid at 80% paid), paid sick and personal days, paid holidays and fewer than 40-hour-week schedules. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, United States is called a “no vacation nation” where workers’ legal rights for paid vacations and holidays are equal to zero.

Taking time off has often been tricky for people who want to grow professionally and increase their income. It is not easy for businesses owners, self-employed and many others who don’t have benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic made this situation even worse. The circumstances forced many people to move their offices into their homes, embrace virtual platforms and juggle work and family responsibilities. Consequently, the boundaries between work and free time have become fuzzy and often do not exist. 

Nevertheless, whatever our work circumstances are, we must create the time off we need and deserve. Not taking time off is a decision that comes with consequences – poor health, less motivation, relationship troubles, lower productivity and mediocre performance in personal and professional lives.  

The amount of time off matters, but how we spend this precious period plays an even more significant role. And what we choose to do (or not do) is the part we can control the most. We want to be thoughtful and intentional about our needs, what we want to experience during our vacation and how we want to feel when we return. Summertime gives many opportunities to have a great time and not necessarily spend a fortune. Below are some ideas on how to get a break from our daily responsibilities and have the best summer ever. 

Connecting with nature 

Nature is healing and rejuvenating, it doesn’t need a lot of planning and it can be very affordable. It is out there, often around the corner, waiting for us to come and enjoy it. If going to the beach is not in the picture this year, we can try hiking in the mountains, walking in the forest, camping by a lake, or visiting a local park. 

Unplugging from devices

In recent years, electronic devices have dominated our lives. The more time we spend looking at the screens, the less free time we have for activities that make us happier and healthier. Once we put our devices away, we can discover what we are missing in our lives. We might be craving face-to-face conversation, planting a garden, reading a book, taking a walk, or getting more sleep. As useful and necessary as technology is, we need a break from it.

Bonding with people

The pandemic has taught us that there is no substitute for a genuine human connection. We feel lighter after a thoughtful conversation, happier after a good laugh and healthier when making meaningful connections with others. It is easier to connect and bond with people when we have more time and are not under the stress of work and deadlines. Often, a new friendship or a closer relationship is only a smile or a listening ear away. 

Changing the venue

Spending some time away from home and workspace can provide a fresh look at our circumstances and give us a new perspective on life. Of course, exotic and exciting places are always fun to visit, but going camping or taking a road trip might be just enough to detach from the everyday reality and see things differently.

Getting physical

One of the best ways to feel better and forget about life challenges is to engage in physical activities. Warm weather and long summer days provide many opportunities to exercise outdoors. We can easily combine physical activities with exploring new places and being in nature. The key is to find something available to us, a sport that we can handle and the movement that brings us joy. 

We all have our favorite ways to spend a vacation. Still, we first need to allow ourselves to have the uninterrupted time off we need. The rest comes down to a little bit of planning, a few good ideas, and a mind open to new possibilities.