Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Word About December Vacation—Did You Really Get One?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, because I don’t want to sound as if I’m telling you what to do with your job or how to work with your students—counselors don’t tell anyone to do anything, so I’m really not interested in doing that. At the same time, my social media reading over the holiday break revealed some disturbing posts that lead me to ask an important question:

Exactly how much did you work over the holiday break?

I ask this because I’m a pretty strong advocate that vacation time is, well, vacation time. “Vacation” comes from the root word “vacate”, which means to leave behind in its entirety. You don’t get to take part of your apartment with you when you vacate it, nor should you; the same is true for vacating a job. When you’re done, you’re done, if only for the weekend—or for the time you aren't working.

This leads me to wonder just how much serious vacating went on in the last few weeks. My social media posts were flooded with remarks from counselors like “Student sent me her college essays on New Year’s Eve (sigh)” and “Student said they had to know if they passed their Algebra midterm.”

This doesn’t remotely sound like vacating, my friends, and that’s not good. It’s not good for you, because there are other parts of your life—and most important, other people in your life—who get short changed when you work over a holiday. One of those parts is your mental sanity. You work too hard for too long, and bad things happen—and if you’re thinking “but I only spent five minutes a day on email,” go back and think about how much time you devoted to responding to that five minutes of email, or thinking about what you’d have to do with that email once you go back to work. No matter where you were, you were mentally back at work—and that’s not vacating. 

I’d also argue this state of perpetual availability isn’t all that great for students. The student needing to know if they passed Algebra can just as easily ask the teacher on the last day of school as they can email you over break, and the student writing college essays could knock out rough drafts the weekend before vacation and send them to you then. With a heads up from you that says you’re offline for two weeks, students get to develop self-care and time management skills that are essential to being healthy adults. That’s part of our job, too. 

Counselors give two kinds of pushback when I urge them to consider using vacation for vacation. The first is that the students need counselors, and we should be there for the students. That’s certainly true—but just how much do students need us over break? Classes aren’t in session over break, so there’s no real need for academic guidance. Any college application that’s due January 1 can be submitted by the student without a transcript. As long as the student asks you to send the transcript once school reopens, they’re going to be fine.

That leaves supporting students emotionally. It can be hard to leave a student in need on their own for a couple of weeks, especially if it’s clear there are no other resources for them to lean on over break, or if the holidays themselves will likely be a stress-inducer. At the same time, other mental health workers find ways to take breaks, and make contingency plans for their clients while they’re away. With a little advanced planning, you can provide a list of resources for your students to use in case they’re needed, allowing you to take care of yourself and those in your personal life.

The second argument is a contractual one, where a supervisor or a contract requires you to do some kind of work over a break. I’m raising this point now so you have time to fix that. Provide some data to your boss showing just how much you weren’t needed over break, or negotiate a change in your contract that allows counselors to take turns checking in over holidays, leaving the task of being “on call” to just one counselor, instead of all of them. 

Our students need us, to be sure, but we need us too. There’s a way to support both in meaningful ways when school’s out. Let’s add that goal to our list of New Year’s resolutions.

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