Tue, Aug 25, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Getting workaholics to stop and recharge

High performers are finding different ways to decompress — from mediation to cryotherapy

By PAUL SULLIVAN  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A woman undergoes a “whole body cryotherapy” session at the Cryotherapy Center in Rennes, northwestern France, in June.

PHOTO: AFP/GEORGES GOBET

Anthony Hitt, chief executive of Engels & Volkers North America, a luxury property company, spends at least one week each quarter at his home in Maui, Hawaii. At this point, three years into the top job, he said he talks to his top lieutenants only 15 minutes a day when he’s there. The rest of the time he reads, practices yoga, rides his bicycle or otherwise tries to disconnect from the responsibilities of his job.

“My vacations are so low-key,” he said. “I try not to think, ‘What about this or what is the solution to that?’”

Judith Hellman, a dermatologist in private practice and an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, has a mix of strategies to disconnect from the demands of her patients. Trained as a classical pianist, Hellman likes to play jazz on the piano in her apartment. She swims (in the shade, of course). She writes poetry, though she has no illusions about its quality.

And she takes off at least four weeks a year — next month it is scuba diving in Israel — and asks her patients to contact her only if it’s a true emergency.

“Thank God most skin problems don’t kill people, so they can wait,” she said. “I need that time to stand up to their demands.”

less downtime

While August is traditionally the time people get away, fewer are doing it and those who are leaving work aren’t detaching the way Hellman does, or even Hitt. People in the US are taking less time off than at any point in the last 40 years, according to data cited this year in The New York Times. Responses to one online questionnaire indicated that a majority of Americans do not use all of their paid vacation.

Project: Time Off, a group supported by the travel industry, said in a survey it released this summer that US workers had hit a record low for days off, 16 days a year. (Fifteen years ago, workers averaged about 20 days off.) And it christened a new archetype: the work martyr, a person whose family understands that work will interfere with family life but is still unhappy about it in more than a third of the cases.

While it’s easy to criticize nonstop work, it is the reality not just for many high performers but also for people who fear for their jobs if they take time off. So what are people doing who choose to decompress? How do they look at the costs — both the actual cost and the psychological and physical cost of taking, or not taking, time to do something for themselves?

Jeanette Bronee, who said she left a high-stress career as a fashion executive 10 years ago to start a health consultancy, Path for Life, said she tried to get people to see that their always-connected lives were hurting their health and making them less productive than they thought they were.

turn off that device

She developed a nine-step system for executives to learn to decompress, which often translates to time away from the devices that connect them to work.

But Bronee said most people did not come to her until they received a diagnosis of some severe health problem. Her initial focus is on nutrition and exercise. But she also stresses mindfulness — a concept she said many type-A people shun at first.

“A lot of people have a hard time thinking about mindfulness because they think of sitting on a pillow for 30 minutes,” she said. “But mindfulness is something we can practice in daily ways. Mindfulness is a lot about catching all those thoughts that cause us stress.”

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