Not having adequate back-up in place leaves you vulnerable, explains Bonnie Low-Kramen

“Take me to the hospital.” This was said by me on the first day of my long-awaited vacation, back 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 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.

Taking a Vacation

That year, 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, also known as double pneumonia. If you have never had pneumonia, it feels like no other illness. It’s 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. I hope you cannot relate to this story, but I fear you can.

Are You Exhausted?

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: 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 may be working from home. 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 Wi-Fi, comfortable chair, better lighting, etc. These amenities make it very easy to never stop working.

What is also true is that you are sleeping at work and burning out.

Paying the Price

We are paying a high price from non-stop work. The price we pay takes many forms, from eating too much or not eating enough to losing sleep, drinking too much, drugging too much, feeling depressed or angry, getting headaches, and making mistakes – to name just a few.

What I see is that the need for back-up 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.

The Importance of Back-up

Pre-pandemic (2015 to be precise), I wrote this article on the importance of back-up 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 back-up plan.

Pre-pandemic, most Assistants reported doing at least some work on vacation because they had little to no back-up. 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 of back-up. 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 but his Assistant touching his work. 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.

What if the Assistant gets COVID-19 or one of their family members gets sick? What if they want to take a vacation in a place that does not have Wi-Fi? What if their psychologist says that unless the Assistant takes a serious break, there is a concern for their long-term health? What if the Assistant has a family emergency that means they will not be 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).

Many Assistants admit that they enjoy being so needed by their executives – until they don’t.

A Single Point of Failure

The bottom line is that not having adequate back-up systems in place leaves a company vulnerable with 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. Life happens, doesn’t it? Especially now.

What is also true is that other executives who take vacations can 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 one.”

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?

Bonnie Low-Kramen is the founder of Ultimate Assistant Training and is one of the most respected thought leaders on workplace issues. She is a TEDx speaker, bestselling author of Be the Ultimate Assistant and Staff Matters, and her work has been featured ... (Read More)

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