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Taking time off from work takes a leap of faith

Anne Wallace Allen 2015While some workers worldwide dedicate weeks and even months to summer vacations, most Americans barely manage a week away from work, and some spend that time beholden to a smartphone. According to a nonprofit called Project Time Off that tracks such things, vacation usage has fallen to 16 days a year – nearly a week less than the average that U.S. workers took between 1978 and 2000.

Of course, a group called Project Time Off is going to report that Americans need to take more of it. But even HR firms and corporations with a vested interest in productivity have released similar findings. The Society for Human Resources tells its members that vacation time is good for the bottom line, and some companies actually pay workers bonuses to go away and recharge their batteries.

One reason workers don’t take more extended breaks is that it’s just so hard to get away. Since the Great Recession, many companies have made do with fewer people doing more jobs. In private firms and small businesses, especially, there just isn’t always the redundancy to allow key employees to vanish from contact for a week or two. Plus, a lot of workers report that they feel it sends the wrong message to ask for time away – that it shows they’re not dedicated to their company.

Still, the lucky and the smart do step away, knowing it’s the best way to stay creative, to recharge as a leader, and to reorder one’s priorities.

One such leave-taker is Jeff Russell, the founder and CEO of Jitasa, who on July 15 bicycled away from the company where he’d been toiling for 10 years.

Jeff Russell on a pre-trip training ride with his gear in Idaho last month. Photo courtesy of Tara Russell

Jeff Russell on a pre-trip training ride with his gear in Idaho in June. Photo courtesy of Tara Russell

Russell is in the midst of a 2,000-mile solo bike trek that started in Vancouver, B.C, and will end around August 20 in Tijuana. While he’s in touch with his family, he’s decided to go cold turkey with most of his social media. His temporary replacement in the CEO’s job, board member Gary Budzinski, watched Russell delete the apps from his phone before he set out, though he can watch Russell’s progress on the app Strava and knows he’s doing about 65 miles a day. Russell’s carrying a tent and other gear, and doesn’t have external support.

Jitasa has a generous paid leave policy that allows everyone at the company with five years’ tenure to take six weeks off, paid. Budzinski said the board, led by board Chairman Alexander Toeldte, encouraged Russell to take off.

“Our chairman is of German descent, and of course he reflects back to his time in Germany when they take the whole month of July off and extra,” Budzinski said.

It helps that Jitasa, which provides back-office services to nonprofits, is thriving. Budzinski said the company, which has 100 employees in Boise, has tripled its revenue in the last two years, with three successful acquisitions.

“There’s a lot of positive momentum financially,” he said.

Budzinski is taking a break of sorts too, from his life serving as a consultant in Rochester, Michigan after 38 years in the corporate world. He’s treating his 12-week stay in Boise as an opportunity to visit new places, sample new restaurants, and meet new people.

He expects Russell to return with a changed perspective.

“When he comes back, he comes back to deciding what he wants to take back, because everything has been delegated,” Budzinski said. “You don’t have to come back to the same job and do the same things; you can do different things. My guess is he’ll come back with a lot of energy and new ideas.”

I didn’t attempt to interrupt Russell’s solo idyll in coastal California with an interview, but I asked his wife Tara Russell, the founder of Create Common Good (and now the president of the Fathom cruise line) to tell me about the trip. She said Jeff Russell has long dreamed of doing a solo bike adventure. Also, the trip fits in with Jitasa’s position that family, wellness, rest and passions are as important as work.

“Sabbaticals are a time to reset and rejuvenate, and an opportunity for employees to dive further into the things that matter to them outside of work,” she said in an email. “He’s been eager to mentally and physically reset so that he can continue to best lead, serve and support the Jitasa mission.”

The family is in touch most days, she added.

As an employee benefit, the sabbatical is a potent attraction. Jeff Russell is only the fifth person at Jitasa to take advantage of it, Budzinski said, but many employees are just about to reach their five-year mark, so company leaders expect to see many more.

“Here is my advice on what you should do when you are off,” Budzinski said. “Be disconnected from all the social media; really detox yourself. Just sort of enjoy the outdoors, enjoy the people you really want to be with, because you don’t get a lot of times like this.”

Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.