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Etymology: French vacacion “vacancy, vacant position” (14c.) and directly from Latin vacationem (nominative vacatio) “leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty, immunity earned by service,” noun of state from past participle stem of vacare “be empty, free, or at leisure ...”

Until I was in my 40s, all of my vacations ranged from one long weekend, or as long as two weeks. They always seemed to have felt relaxing, enjoyable, and refreshing. In my mind, they accomplished the important purpose of giving me (and my family) valuable and memorable times together. Each vacation cleared my mind a bit as I usually shed some stress. At the end of it, I usually felt “ready” to dive back into the job, even though I usually stole at least a few minutes each day to check in with the office and make sure all was going well without me. Vacation time was a well-deserved “intermission” from the daily grind, a tool to help me sustain it.

During a particularly stressful point in our life, I knew we needed more. We decided on a northeast destination, but with no itinerary. We went to our AAA office, bought a stack of Travelers Cheques, and secured “Trip-Tiks” (detailed paper maps. GPS or Google Maps didn’t exist back then). I had a list of 1–800 numbers for all of the major hotel chains. We packed up the car and hit the road, driving northeast and exploring until there was no more northeast pavement to drive on.

When we got hungry, we’d ask locals where to find unique culinary delights. When we got curious or were captivated by something, we pulled over and enjoyed it. We talked. We sang. We each spent time lost in our own thoughts. When we got tired, we called to reserve a room for the night at the nearest hotel along the way. We ate our first McLobster Sandwich in Antigonish and darted through the woods to the cliff’s edge at Ingonish’s Middle Head Hiking Trail. We watched for whales from the high elevation at Meat Cove and descended into the belly of a coal mine in Sydney. We plucked fresh lobster from Bra d’Or Lake, boiling them in their native waters. We saw the morning sunrise over the misty highlands of Baddeck, experienced the bites of Black Flies as we golfed, and even got to enjoy Sunday worship lakeside along the Trans-Canada Highway.

I recognized a few key things.

  1. It took more than a week before the automatic urge to call the office went away.
  2. Late in the second week, I began to feel a genuine but unfamiliar sense of restfulness and relaxation from the neck up. I was in unfamiliar territory, embracing the fact that I didn’t have to go back to work for two more weeks.
  3. By the start of week three, the “off duty” flag in my brain was flying high. There was no sense of pressure to squeeze in all the vacation that I could get in. In other words, I wasn’t working at being on vacation.
  4. By the start of week four, standing in Times Square at midmorning, wondering how to get to the 2nd Avenue Deli, a strange feeling came over me. In retrospect, I was waking up to the world of difference between being ready to get back to work and not wanting to go back to my job.
  5. Near the end of week four, as we concluded our wandering at a grand chocolate-themed amusement park, the overwhelming emotions might be described as an odd combination of gratification and grieving. Gratified to have been able to vacation that long, I was far less emotionally prepared to return to work, far more ready to continue our wandering. It felt like I had enjoyed a taste of…freedom.
  6. It took another month to regain a feeling of normalcy on the job. For the first time in my young life, I was at work in deep reflection about the importance of vacation instead of being on a brief vacation worrying about what was going on at work.

It was the first time I’d taken a one-month vacation since elementary school. From junior high school on, all of my summers were spent in work-study. Thirty days of “leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty” in 1996 permanently changed my attitude and my life for the better.

Americans are notoriously vacation deprived, scrounging what they can get, or feel safe taking. American employers are notoriously like jealous mates who don’t want you out of their site for too long. In stark contrast, others in the world take a more civilized view of ‘holiday.’ “European Union legislation mandates that all 28 member states must by law grant all employees a minimum of 4 weeks of paid vacation. Workers are entitled to 10 days paid annual leave for each complete year of service. Every employee is also entitled to 12 paid public holidays.

For the first time in my young life, I understood.

So will hundreds of millions of workers globally as COVID-19 restrictions on congregate activities are lifted. “Work From Home” (WFH) and “Remote Work” has opened employees’ eyes. Employer demand for a full-scale return to centralized workspaces, cubicle farms, and crowded hubs will be met with psychologically unprepared and even reticent workers who have found a long-lost form of relative freedom in which work can have meaning and value without the burden of an all-consuming mandatory associated space.

The attempts to meet the workplace needs of a 2020 pandemic resulted in a frenzied redefinition of productivity, positioning, and power in a forced WFH schema. Employers’ attempts to return the workforce to the old ways of work/life will become a bookend to the COVID-19 WFH saga.

The mental, emotional, psychological sense of “liberation” I discovered from a voluntary one-month-long physical separation from “the office” has been thrust upon a generation of workers by the viral tidal wave of sickness, death, isolation, and despair of a global plague. This has in no sense been the same thing as a vacation. But what is the real difference between vacating a job, compared to your former existence vacating you? The phenomenon has left a new kind of mark on employees, cleansing them of the fatal attraction to a mandatory congregate workspace. However, something akin to a postwar modality may be the aftermath of the pandemic going forward.

It has been in every sense and at many levels a physical, mental, emotional, and psychological separation of work from the traditional workplace. That “distancing” for as much as a full year for many at this point has, as it did for me, planted more than a seed of recognition that the congregate workplace was not the end-all beat-all answer to the meaning of life that employers have desperately worked to convince employees that it was.

Many WFH Employees are dreading re-entry and reengaging with the stresses and expense of the commute, the face-to-face contact in toxic work environments with, frankly, poor managers, unskilled communicators, performance mediocrity, and deeply troubling interactions like bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment, and innuendo, head-on full-frontal discrimination, cubical farm sensory deprivation, and certainly not the least of it all, direct physical exposure to those who have taken the pandemic less than seriously and employers who will condone or even encourage that. Employees know that they won’t be able to simply end the conference call and find psychological and physical refuge in the relative safety of their homes.

Employers in 2020 quickly adopted different ways of working where they could. New businesses have become intermediaries between business and their customers. Technologies have become the connectors between workers and employers. Personal homes have become satellite offices.

Un-adopting” them is physically possible, but the psychological and sociological lessons of the separation will not be easily expunged from the minds and hearts of workers who may well have to be forced to return to traditional office environments and structures. All of the same consultants who were touting solutions to WFH productivity will no doubt miraculously switch gears to restoring productivity and psychological safety in the repopulated traditional workspaces.

Employers can do it the right way, a humane way, if the will is there.

The Covid-19 global pandemic is the foremost moment of the century (so far) for illustrating the convergence of all three primary Safety EcoSystem framework domains, including the newly framed Sociological Safety domain, around a single clearly definable issue ostensibly not of human causation. It also clearly illustrates an on-the-ground crystal clear delineation of behavior and orientation across three subdomains, how they impact upon each other, and upon the three primary domains and their interdependence.

For now, we’re hanging on to the tail of a tiger of a virus, riding a dangerous policy pendulum swinging between imposing and lifting pandemic-driven restrictions. But with the advent of vaccines, don’t be surprised at all at the level of difficulty embodied in finding a new equilibrium between home and work. It will entail a complete and robust approach to restoring equilibrium between physiological safety, sociological safety, and psychological safety of workers in a post-pandemic workplace.

The official end of the pandemic may still be only slightly more than a light at the end of the tunnel. Researchers are covering the waterfront for the “postwar” physiological implications of a safe return to the workplace. Employers should also be thinking beyond the physiological, thinking deeply about the long-term sociological and psychological safety ramifications in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and beginning to formulate strategies for a new normal in work life. How to make your employees feel safe returning to some semblance of a traditional congregate workplace will become the next priority in the pandemic saga.

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CONTACT: Rob Jones, IngoodCompany LLC to learn more about the Safety Ecosystem and creating equilibrium between physiological safety, sociological safety, and psychological safety in the workplace.

A career spanning public, private, and nonprofit sectors. High-level management experience across a range of activities in F-500 companies and Consulting/Coach.

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