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How much vacation time do you really need?


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Heck of a question, that.

More years ago than I care to remember, I took a glorious five weeks off from work. I had saved up more time off than most of us will ever see, and those hours were about to expire. I took all of August and the first week of September for vacation so I wouldn’t lose those hours.

It was the first time I had been fully rested since before I started nursing school. That five weeks saved me from a creeping case of burnout and general dissatisfaction with my job, and contributed to some of the best house remodeling I’ve done in a decade. I returned to work unsure how to operate all the pumps and drug-dispensing machines, but clear-eyed, bushy-tailed and with enough energy to power a starship.

Most of us work anywhere between 36 hours (the average) and 100 hours (for the truly insane) a week. Everybody needs downtime—especially nurses, because our job includes physical, mental and emotional stresses. Burnout is dangerous to us and to our patients.

So how much vacation time should we get?

In an ideal world, I’d say that we all get what workers in the European Union get—on average, four to six weeks a year, not counting holidays. I’d go further and say that a minimum of three weeks of that vacation time would be required to be taken consecutively. In other words, you could use 21 days however you wanted, but at some point, you’d have to take a solid three weeks off from work just to recharge your batteries and unkink your back.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the U.S. works. (I don’t know anything about Canadian vacation time; that’s an area of ignorance I’ll have to remedy.) We get six, eight, ten or however many hours in proportion to the number of hours we work, and that’s it. Vacation time is rationed; many facilities won’t allow more than one nurse per unit to take vacation at one time. Some places don’t have separate sick time and vacation time, which means that if one of the kids gets sick, you’re kissing Cancun goodbye for the fiscal year.

In reality, I would say this: As a guideline, try to take as much time off in a pay period as you work. If that’s not possible (and it’s not for me), try to balance it so that you’re not at work more than two-thirds of every calendar month. Once a year, take a minimum—an absolute minimum—of ten days off in a row. Get the heck out of Dodge and do something totally unrelated to nursing, even if it’s physical labor in a refugee camp in Backobeyondistan. A change is as good as a rest, as they say, and that’s true: Getting outside of your comfort zone by doing something totally different can be healing.

No matter how you manage it, by hook or by crook, do it. People with more than 200 hours of accrued vacation time aren’t living a life, they’re living a job. Get out of the hospital or clinic or surgical center and see what the rest of the world has to offer. Sleep late. Nap in the mid-afternoon. Laze around doing nothing.

It makes a huge difference in how you live and in how you approach your work.

What do you think? What’s the perfect allotment of nurse vacation time? How would you spend it?

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