/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/bonnie-low-logo.png 0 0 Bonnie Low-Kramen /wp-content/uploads/2020/08/bonnie-low-logo.png Bonnie Low-Kramen2022-02-09 12:39:092022-03-16 13:06:14You’ve Got Their Back. Who’s Got Yours? By Bonnie Low-Kramen
February 2022 for Executive Support Magazine
“Take me to the hospital.” This was said by me on day one of my long-awaited vacation in 2000. As a Personal Assistant, I ran a one-person office in New York City for Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis. On the surface, this may seem like a job dripping with glamour and red carpets and it actually was – 15% of the time. The remaining 85% was plain hard work and very long hours. The world of entertainment did not leave much space for time off.
In 2000, I was determined to plan a week-long family vacation for me. Radical idea, right? I was great at planning trips for Olympia but not so for myself. Other years, I just didn’t take a vacation – like so many assistants – because I was always looking for “a good time.” My lesson was that there is never a perfect time to take time off. I deeply regret not figuring this out much sooner.
For two weeks prior to leaving, I worked longer than usual hours preparing for my absence. We had a four-hour drive to Virginia. The truth is that I felt sick when I stepped into the car, but I willed myself to not give in to how weak I was. As each hour went by, I felt myself feeling worse and worse, hotter and hotter. By the time we arrived at our destination, I had no choice but to say to my husband, “Take me to the hospital.” He and my son did not question me. My own pale reflection in the mirror frightened me.
In the emergency room, they determined that I had a fever of 103.5 and pneumonia in both my lungs, aka double pneumonia. If you have never had pneumonia, it feels like no other illness. It is kind of like an anvil sitting on your chest. I will never forget what the doctor said to me. “You had better take it easier. A person does not catch pneumonia. You develop pneumonia from running on empty. And once you have it, your lungs are compromised forever.” Oh.
My vacation was spent inside our room at the hotel watching television while my family was out having fun without me. Guilty mom syndrome? You bet. I hope you cannot relate to this story, but I fear you can.
Are You Running On Empty?
Tell the truth. Are you exhausted? Do you wake up in the morning and dread starting work? Do you desperately need a vacation? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. Far from it.
The pandemic has added a whole new layer to the taking time off situation. Current data shows that the humans of our workplace are experiencing burnout and mental health challenges brought on by the prolonged stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and loneliness in record numbers. My conversations with the assistants of the world confirm these hard truths.
A June, 2021 survey found good news that 79% of employees intend to take their paid time off in the coming year. However, 61% report doing work at least once a day while on vacation and 56% said they had canceled, delayed, or cut short vacation plans because of work.
The bottom line is that we are mentally and physically tired and need a break. A real one.
Yes, you are working from home, most likely a few days each week. On one hand, working from home means a super short commute and being able to have dinner with your family. On the other hand, it means you never leave your “office.” You can work 24/7 if you want to and log in wearing your bathrobe.
When the world made the move to working from home, company leaders made sure to provide all the tools to do this well. These tools included a company computer, additional monitor, high-speed WiFi, comfortable chair, better lighting, etc. These amenities make it very easy to never stop working.
Are You Sleeping At Work? Me Too.
What is also true is that you are sleeping at work and burning out.
We are paying a high price from non-stop work. The price we pay takes many forms, from eating too much, not eating enough, losing sleep, drinking too much, drugging too much, feeling depressed, angry, getting headaches, making mistakes – to name just a few.
What I see is that the need for backup has never been greater because the pandemic threw most of us far outside our comfort zone and ability to cope given all the new factors in our lives. Essentially, no one was prepared for this.
As the months have stretched into going on two years since the pandemic began, the physical and mental toll are deeply concerning. While it might seem easier to never stop working, it is not sustainable or responsible.
What I see is a work-life out of control. If we are going to be able to sustain our long-term sanity and health, then it is time to take control of our time. We need to define a workday that is free of blurry boundaries. It is vital to be able to shut our work down after the workday ends and to be able to hand our work off to a colleague when we take a vacation.
Easier said than done.
Pre-pandemic (2015 to be precise) I wrote this article on the importance of backup and suggested how assistants could get back up in place before going on vacation. Fast forward to 2021, and it is now more important than ever to have a backup plan.
Pre-pandemic, most assistants reported doing at least some work on vacation because they had little to no backup. Now many assistants report not taking vacation at all and/or working seven days a week because, well, they can, and the price they pay to leave (and then to return to a mountain of work) feels too high and they would prefer not to go at all because of it?
It is imperative that assistants take a strong, proactive stance about the necessity for backup. Leaders need to be presented with a realistic plan for preparation, execution, and seamless implementation.
Pushback to Back-up
One assistant shared that her executive’s work is hyper-confidential and therefore, the leader does not want anyone else touching his work but his assistant. As a result, in the seven years they have worked together, she has never been able to take a true vacation free of work. That plan is not realistic or reasonable for the long term.
What if the assistant gets Covid or one of her family members gets sick? What if s/he actually wants to take a vacation in a place that does not have WiFi? What if her psychologist says that unless the assistant takes a serious break, there is a concern for her long-term health? What if the assistant has a family emergency that requires s/he not being available? Or what if the assistant wins the lottery tomorrow and quits? Would the office fall apart and come to a grinding halt, or be just fine…or somewhere in between?
The truth is that many executives are workaholics and choose to work on vacation, which of course is their choice. Given the salary difference between leaders and assistants, it is not reasonable to expect an assistant to work at that same intensity (although we know plenty who do).
Assistants admit that they enjoy being so needed by their executives – until they don’t.
The bottom line is that not having adequate backup systems in place leaves a company vulnerable to a dangerous single point of failure. The test of effective managers and a well-run office is that when a key staffer suddenly cannot be there, the office is able to run fine. Not perfectly, of course, but fine. No one person should be indispensable because life happens, doesn’t it? Especially now.
What is also true is that the other executives who take vacations are able to totally unplug because their assistant is backing them up. We need to insist on that being true for assistants.
One leader said to me, “Bonnie, if I am not told there is a problem, I think that there isn’t any.”
I am sounding the alarm with an urgent call to action because the stakes are very high. In a workplace that has never been so VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – we must take a hard, fresh look at the physical and mental toll it is taking on ourselves and our staff.
We must all ask ourselves the questions: Who’s got my back? Who’s got me?
I am Bonnie Low-Kramen, TEDx speaker, author of “Be the Ultimate Assistant” and trainer of Executive Assistants all over the world. As part of my work to teach building ultimate business partnerships, I was featured in a Forbes online cover story. In the research for my second book about the workplace to be published in 2022, I have had over 1,500 conversations with assistants, leaders, HR professionals, recruiters, and business school professors in 14 countries and 38 states. I am excited to work with you towards building your ultimate workplace. Click here to set up a time to speak with me about your training needs which can be delivered virtually or in person. Thank you.
This article first appeared in Executive Support Magazine, a global training publication and must-read for any administrative professional. You can get a 30% discount when you subscribe through us. Visit the website at www.executivesupportmagazine.com to find out more or to get your 30% discount email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell them we sent you.