We should celebrate truly unplugging from work.
By Gabe Roberts, Jacksonville Bar Association
For some people, it is changing jobs. For others, it is changing their entire profession, adopting a pet or experimenting with other forms of escape.
Regardless of how we address it, it has become axiomatic in the legal profession that we need to improve our mental health. One of the best ways to address this is through something we too often ignore: vacation time.
The American Psychological Association lists four reasons to take a vacation from work: life satisfaction, physical improvements, mental health benefits and improved productivity.
The APA notes a study of 800 lawyers that found vacations reduced depression and lowered job stress. The Harvard Business Review agreed that performance goes down when we work for extended periods with no break.
Conversely, Harvard found that taking a vacation improved productivity, lowered stress and led to better overall mental health.
The advantages from taking vacation lead to other benefits, such as being 30% more likely to receive a pay raise, according to a 2016 survey by Project: Time Off.
Despite these benefits, we are not using our vacation time. The Project: Time Off survey found that Americans are taking fewer days off per year than they did in 2000. The survey also found that 55% of Americans reported having unused vacation days. In total, Americans left 768 million vacation days on the table in 2018.
The Society for Human Resource Management noted that companies switching to unlimited personal time off policies struggled more with underuse of the policy than overuse by employees.
In 2017, Vault, an employment research company, conducted a survey of law firm associates and found that only 74% of respondents felt comfortable using their vacation days.
There is a privilege in being able to take paid time off. Unlike other countries, America does not guarantee PTO. As a result, PTO is available only if your employer grants it.
For lawyers, this is typically not a problem. As Bloomberg Law put it, “on paper, it sounds like lawyers get a lot of time off,” but that does not mean we use it.
There are many reasons.
First, lawyers face pressure to not take time off. As Above the Law noted, many law firms use the premise of an unlimited PTO policy to limit the amount of time attorneys take off. When there is no set number of paid days off, associates are hesitant to overreach by taking too many days.
This is not limited to the firm context. Attorneys who are in court nearly every day, such as public defenders or assistant state attorneys, face pressure to not miss a day of court.
This is possibly the most difficult hurdle to overcome because the pressure is external. Moving past this pressure requires helpful supervisors that recognize the importance of vacations.
For workplaces without those supervisors, collective action from employees is successful, but also rare in the competitive legal profession.
Without either of those options, careful planning is needed to take a vacation.
The need for careful planning extends to the second reason, which is that many lawyers perceive their jobs as being too important to take time off from the work.
This is wrong on many levels, but the main one is that it improperly values the benefits of taking a break. As explained, taking time off makes us better at our jobs. If we cared about doing a good job, then we would prioritize taking time.
Of course, there will be periods when taking time off is impossible, whether because of pressing deadlines, looming trials or an overwhelming schedule, but there will be lulls in the action.
Then, we have the final excuse, which is that some lawyers think that they are “bad at taking time off.”
We have a habit of viewing feeling stressed and overworked as a badge of honor, which creates the tendency to view time off as a weakness.
For those of us who have this mindset, we need to switch our perspective to truly be the best attorneys possible.
Rather than celebrate that email we send despite our out-of-office reply, we should celebrate truly unplugging from work. Being the best attorney requires enjoying what we do, and that requires taking time away when possible.
Gabe Roberts is an associate attorney and the Jacksonville practice group leader for Scott Wagner & Associates, where he handles civil rights and employment discrimination cases.
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