The Science of Break-Taking: Self-Care Perspectives with Tammy Swed

Tammy Swed is a Learning Solutions Manager at the American Management Association. She is responsible for the Business Excellence for Women, as well as the Training portfolio of seminars.

In her role, Tammy identifies specific market trends and client needs, while collaborating with subject matter experts to design and develop impactful learning content that targets all professionals at all levels.

Tammy is an integral member of the AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center. She was inspired to create a community that extends the conversation on issues that matter; where women can share, connect, and learn from one another in a safe and supportive environment.

Tammy holds a Masters of Science in Industrial Organizational Psychology.

When I first thought of putting together this series on self care, I knew where I wanted to start. Tammy Swed is one of the smartest women I know, and she’s well versed in the intricate challenges of workplace wellness. (She’s also my sister-in-law, but we won’t hold it against her.) She generously offered to answer some questions about vacation times and breaks—including for those of us who don’t have much control over the matter.

What kinds of challenges do people face with regards to taking breaks or vacations from work or school? 

Many employees in the U.S. are referred to as “knowledge workers”; that is, anyone who performs the tasks of developing or using knowledge. This means that you don’t need to be in the office to complete your work. With the continuous advancement in technology, people are regularly connected and accessible. It may seem difficult to disconnect when you constantly check your email. So even when you do take some time off from work, how often do you truly disconnect?

 

What are the benefits of having dedicated vacations built into the calendar? 

The benefits can be described on the individual level, as well as the organizational level. Many studies have looked at the impact of vacation and job stress on burnout and absenteeism, and found that vacation mitigated employees’ perceived job stress and employee burnout. Vacation or time off from work allows one to be physically removed from the demands of a job. It provides an opportunity to rest and replenish resources for the job, and is associated with higher level of employee wellbeing and engagement. This emphasizes the value of replenishing psychological and emotional resources.

On an organizational level, time off from work contributes to increased levels of job satisfaction and employee engagement. Employee engagement and burnout can be seen as the opposite ends of a spectrum. Research has suggested a link between employee engagement and increased organizational profitability, productivity, and safety, as well as enhanced employee well being, and lower turnover and absenteeism.

 

Ideally, how often should someone take a few days off? Is it better to take a long break — say, a week — or to spread out long weekends and isolated days? 

The answer to this questions definitely depends on the individual, the type of work they do, and their organizational culture.

Individual considerations: How do you perceive the demands of your work? Perception is key. How engaged are you? Do you love/hate your job? What are some other circumstances in your life that “deplete” your resources?

Type of work: can you, in fact, disconnect for a long period of time? do you work alone, or with a team? If with a team, are you able to delegate responsibilities? Do you trust your team members?

Org culture: What are the paid time off (PTO) policy offered? What are the unspoken rules—will it be frowned upon if you leave for 2 weeks? Are you expected to be available even when you are on vacation?

Do you have any advice for self-employed folks, or those who might not have mandated vacation time? It can be so easy to keep working nonstop, and suddenly find yourself burned out. Can that be avoided?

Much like your question above, and much like any employee in an organization, plan and have dedicated time off scheduled. you need to notify your employer (and your team) of your intentions to leave for a period of time. You are your own employer. Do the same.

If you work continuously because you are extremely engaged in your work, there is nothing wrong with that. You do need to be aware of your energy reserves, and that takes some self reflection and awareness.

 

Is it important to take short breaks throughout a workday, where possible? Are there ideal ways to spend that time?

I would argue that it is important to take short breaks throughout the day. First, some physical movement is very beneficial to your overall health. Second, taking some time away from the screen and away from your work can give you the opportunity to step back and maybe see things from a different perspective.

Ideal ways to spend that time: up to you. I would suggest that you do something that recharges you. For some, it will be to go out for a run. For others it can be their dedicated time for social media (although, I would advise against it), or you can spend that time connecting with other humans, or animals. Real connection is always very rewarding.

Another thought—use that time to truly disconnect for a few moments. A simple meditation or mindfulness practice are always my choice. Please don’t imagine me sitting in a seated lotus pose. My mindfulness practice is to make a cup of coffee, find a quiet sunny spot, and soak up some vitamin D and caffeine.

 

What other factors can make a positive difference in workplace wellness? Do you have any resources to help with managing wellness and self care? 

  • Mindfulness/meditation as mentioned above
  • Develop positive relationships with colleagues
  • If your company offers any type of wellness activities (or any type of social activities) take advantage of those.
  • Reflect and think about your responsibilities. Manage your time effectively. You can use Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principles: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_91.htm to help you identify what requires your attention.
  • Set boundaries. And don’t say yes to everything.

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More in the self-care series