Can you afford a vacation? Can you afford not to?

Pop quiz time. When it comes to vacations, which of the following statements is closest to your reality?

a) I make sure I take a week-long vacation with the family at least once a year.

b) It's hard to be away for an extended period of time, but I try to get away for long weekends on a regular basis.

c) I remember my last vacation — when was it, 1995?

d) Vacation? What's a vacation?

If you're like a lot of business owners — or even if you're working for someone else — answers C and D may hit closest to home. One in six U.S. employees, according to a national survey, is unable to use up annual vacation time due to job demands. And that is despite the fact that Americans — with an average of 13 vacation days annually — have the least vacation time of workers in the industrialized world.

Not taking vacation, however, may be bad for your health. A study of coronary heart disease risk factors in a study group of 12,000 people suggests that working for years without vacations could put you at risk for early death. Those who took five short vacations a year had a 40 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease than those who didn't get away.

"Taking a vacation is not frivolous behavior. It's essential to staying healthy, "says Alan Muney, chief medical officer of Connecticut-based Oxford Health Plans Inc. "Regular vacations are preventive medicine — they cut down on stress-related illness and save health care dollars."

Other studies show that vacations boost performance and curb stress-related illness. They can help workers re-energize and relieve burnout. 

How to get away

Okay. Vacations are good for me, you say. Now, how do I take one? Here are some strategies to help you get away from Margo Frey, president of Career Development Services, Inc., a career counseling/coaching firm based in Milwaukee.  

Plan well in advance

Frey advises small business owners to schedule vacation time at the start of the fiscal year.

"Ideally, try for a week, especially if you haven't had a vacation in a while, "she says. "If that seems too ambitious, then long weekends may be best."

In either case, think about what time of the year is better to get away. In the painting industry, that will depend on your location, market and workload, and could be winter, summer, fall ,or maybe near a holiday.

The concept is to take a look at a blank calendar and block out a week or long weekend and treat this as you would any other important project that has to be done at a certain time.

"Think of yourself as your own best customer," Frey says. "You are the key to the success of your business." Taking regular vacations helps you perform at your highest level.

Color code it

You know the effect color has on the homes and commercial spaces you paint. Why not use that on yourself? Frey advises clients to block out the week with a bright, cheery color.

"It's a psychological trick that really works," she says.

Backplan

Prep work, painters often say, is 90 percent of a paint job. The same is true of planning for vacations. Try spreading your time-away prep work out over several months instead of cramming it all in the week before you leave.

"Let's say you've chosen the second week of November for your vacation, "Frey says. "Working backward from that date, block out small periods of time — say a half-hour every two weeks — to commit to doing things to make your vacation transition smoother. "Mark these days with the same bright color you used for your vacation time."

Start delegating now

People who don't take vacations often are afraid to trust others with important jobs. One way to overcome this: Begin by delegating small tasks today and gradually work up to larger responsibilities. This helps reduce your feeling of risk. You'll feel more confident about leaving your business in your employees' hands when you're gone. They will probably also respond positively to your increased trust in their abilities.

Communicate with your customers

Frey counsels small business owners to prepare their customers well in advance for their vacation.

"Start telling regular customers at least a month before your vacation," she says. "Then repeat it, reinforce it. You may want to send an e-mail, card or letter to those on your good customer list."

If applicable, let your customers know who they can contact in your absence.

Accept a little anxiety

If you start to worry about a project while you're soaking up the sun on some sandy beach, don't sweat it.

"Understand that you probably will feel uneasy at some point," Frey says. "That's normal. "It's natural to fear that something could go wrong, but remember that it could also go wrong if you were there."

While it's healthy to focus on fun while you are on vacation, it doesn't hurt to think a little bit about work. "Getting a time out often gives you a chance to look at things differently. It can help you avoid tunnel vision and come up with new ideas to make your business operate more efficiently.

"And, if not, "Frey says, "at least you've gotten a vacation."

Are You Burned Out?

Being burned out from work comes from letting your job be your main focus in life. You find yourself not taking time off, not leaving at a decent hour, not taking lunch, bringing work home and working night and day. It has consumed you. Even if you love what you do, you need a break from it. When you start having the signs of being burned out, stop and do something about it immediately. Check Mark ("The Stress Doc") Gorkin's list of the four stages of burnout to see where you fit in.

1. Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion

Are you doing more with less? Do you have a lot of responsibility but no authority? Is juggling an unmanageable schedule starting to take its toll? If you pride yourself on quality performance, but now find yourself cutting corners and looking for short cuts, you may be in the first stage of burnout.

2. Shame and doubt

Your answering machine is full with messages from customers who want to hire you. You want to respond, but an inner voice screams: "Who are you kidding?" You don't know how to finish the jobs you've already promised, and you're starting to feel lousy about how you're doing your job. You may even start second-guessing your past accomplishments. You still project the image of competence, but your voice inside is shouting "Impostor!" You wonder, does anyone else know?

3. Cynicism and callousness

Tired of feeling insecure and inadequate, you develop an attitude. Maybe it's: "Look out for No. 1." Or: "No one's getting to me." Or that old standby: "Cover your derriere. "This strategy often works... in the short run. But this hard, bitter exterior will eventually be self-defeating. When you become sufficiently abrasive or obnoxious, people start avoiding you. Ironically, this often happens to "nice" people, those who want to be a team player and can never say no.

4. Failure, helplessness and crisis

A disorienting stage in which your psychological defenses have worn down so much that the little things that never used to bother you are incredibly irritating. Maybe you're illogically jealous of a competitor, or annoyed by your mate's behavior. In other words, you're ready to crack. You need a vacation, even if it's just a long weekend. Now get out there and... R E L A X.