A lesson worth learning: How to take 'guilt-free' vacations

It's almost summer. Ready for the beach? That backpacking trip across Europe? Cutting out early on Fridays to get to your time share?

I'm sure that's what many of you are dreaming about. But many others, me included, first have to grapple with "vacation guilt."

As hard as we work, as much as we probably need those vacations, we fear that our workplace might fall apart if we're not around.

Or we worry that our job or promotion might be in danger if we really do take some time away from the office to relax, regroup, and unwind.

And if we really feel this way, how do we actually relax and unwind on vacation anyway? Why, oh why, do we torture ourselves this way?

Liz Fritz Susla, manager of community relations at Freddie Mac in McLean, Va., has a few theories. She is one of what I consider to be the lucky ones – those who can take guilt-free vacations.

But it wasn't always that way.

The 36-year-old remembers a time when she was in Colorado for a wedding. She was in her twenties and working in Freddie Mac's government relations division.

"I felt so guilty," she said. So she just kept calling her boss, who told her to chill out and enjoy the wedding. And he had an important reminder that has stuck with her since: The place won't fall apart without you, and the job will be here when you get back.

Today she realizes how important separating herself from the office is. She gets two weeks of vacation each year, and she can "purchase" an additional three weeks as part of a Freddie Mac program where employees can pay for extra vacation time as part of their benefits package.

It doesn't take a psychologist to tell us that taking a vacation from work can actually help productivity. Time away from the daily grind really does help us return with a fresh outlook, and often renewed energy.

"Vacation takes the stress off me. I get a chance to really unwind," Ms. Susla said. Then she added, perhaps amazingly to some of us, "it makes me appreciate my work more."

That's what Dan Sondhelm knows he has to learn. Mr. Sondhelm, a 30-year-old partner with SunStar, a financial public-relations firm in Alexandria, Va., has taken a week-long vacation once in the past five years. During that vacation, in Aspen with friends, he called the office every day.

Does he suffer from vacation guilt?

"No, I don't," he immediately declared. And then he mumbled: "Well, yes, I do. But less so."

Less so because he swears he is going to Cancun for a week this summer. "I'm sure I'll be calling the office just to see what's going on there. But I'll take the whole week off."

Hey, it's a start.

Most of Sondhelm's vacation guilt started because SunStar was a start-up when he came on board. There were few employees, and fewer clients.

He wanted to make sure he was available for those clients all the time.

Of course, his boss, the founder of the company, used to tell him to take a break. She encouraged him to take vacations, and would occasionally even do so herself.

Sondhelm feels differently now that the start-up is less start-uppy. Today, there are 12 employees to help carry the load, and many clients, so he said he feels freer to sit on the beach. Well, he thinks so.

But ask Sondhelm how much vacation a year he gets. He doesn't know.

Ask him if his vacation time is accrued and rolled over to the next year. He doesn't know.

"I don't think it rolls over, because I'd have three months or something by now."

He's about to cash in a week of it. Sort of.

"We'll see how many times I call in, then I'll maybe take another [vacation] six months later."

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go pack for an almost-guilt-free vacation. Oh, and I will be checking in.

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