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The fallacy of escaping work for a "stress free" break to "recharge"

Referencing a Harvard Business Review blog post about taking "stress-free vacations" In a Harvard Business Review discussion, a blogger asks "Do you come back from vacation recharged?" Following is my response:

Let's consider "stress-free" from the perspective of systems theory. Paraphrasing Von Bertalanffy, the lack of stress in a system means that the system is dead. If we are successful at achieving a "stress-free" anything, that element of our lives starts to decline.

For example, the hippocampus generates thousands of stem cells each day. If the stem cells are adequately challenged (put through stress), they sprout into viable neurons that connect with existing networks. Without challenge, the stem cells dissolve. If this "stress free" state continues, the hippocampus starts to shut down, triggering the onset of dementia. In other words, the day we stop learning is the day that our brains start to die.

Applied to “stress free” vacations, saying, “I’ll work through the stress so I can later turn off” means I’m practicing binge-and-purge stress management--a guaranteed way to exacerbate inability to cope with daily stressors.

Especially important to consider here is that the feelings of renewal we get from taking a break generally dissipate quickly upon returning to a reality for which we are not adequately prepared to cope. You may have noticed this with co-workers who suffer under a constant state of emotional labor. Weeks prior to a vacation, the emotional laborer may say things like, "I can't wait until I go on that cruise; and then I can put all of this behind me”. The only problem is that neither the job nor the individual change. The job still has the same requirements and challenges. The individual still has the same incapacity to perform in and cope with the job. No amount of “stress free” or “renewal” will make the individual better prepared for the job.

Rather than aspiring for a "stress-free" vacation to "recharge", we can boost performance, creativity, longevity, and health by learning how to deal with the realities of our jobs. This means pursuing knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help us to perform better in our jobs. This suggests that, rather than a stress free vacation to recharge; I might consider participating in a training program that gives me new skills and perspectives for better coping with my life.

From a leadership perspective, we establish a foundation for failure if we fall for the myth that employees will be more productive in a stress free environment or send them away to recharge. Back to the systems theory perspective, stress free means no-growth, no productivity, complacency, decline, death. If we want to build a high performance organization, we're better off helping our employees develop the resilience and skills they need to succeed in their jobs. If an employee lacks competency to handle the stresses inherent in the job, consider offering training for enhancing their performance, satisfaction, and health.

Important to understand here is that performance precedes satisfaction, not the other way around. In other words, the better employees perform the more satisfied they will be. In short, we should stop perceiving stress as a killer disease that we must escape or eradicate. Expecting life to be different than it is can make us neurotic.

Accepting the realities of the workplace will set a foundation for helping us develop the skills and capacity to solve problems and to work through challenge. This includes learning how to recognize when we’re being challenged, temporarily disengaging so we can strategize and gain perspective, then positively reengaging so we can solve problems as they happen.