Work & Family
For Busy Workers, Time Off
Is Not Just for Family Affairs
By SUE SHELLENBARGER
LIKE MANY people these days, stockbroker Ted Lipinski thinks
about work around the clock. He takes work home from the office. He reads
about global markets before he goes to sleep. He wakes up wondering what
happened overseas while he slept. "It's really hard to turn it off,"
But Mr. Lipinski has found a way. Every few months he swaps his gray
business suit for a green G-suit and blasts off in a fighter jet, breaking
the sound barrier in a MiG-29
at 42,000 feet over the Russian countryside or hurtling over the Arizona
desert in a Thunderbird. On a vacation this month, he will co-pilot
jet over the Cape of Good Hope.
"When I fly, I'm not thinking about the markets," says Mr.
Lipinski, a Merrill Lynch financial consultant who books his flights through
Incredible Adventures, Sarasota,
Fla. "I just look forward to getting in the airplane and accelerating
down the runway."
Like modern-day Walter Mittys, a growing number of workers are leading
double lives. To escape the extreme demands of today's jobs, they pursue
equally extreme off-hours passions that provide experiences completely
opposite their workaday routines. These pursuits are an invigorating way
to regain a sense of balance in life.
"When people get a moment to get away, they
blast away," says Casey Dale, a psychologist who heads Bungee.com,
an international jumpsite operator. His bungee-jumping clientele has shifted
in recent years from people in their 20s to 30- and 40-year-olds seeking
"a quick fix" for workaday ennui, Mr. Dale says.
EMPLOYERS ARE increasingly tolerant of workers' using flexible
scheduling for such nonfamily pursuits. Cutting-edge companies no longer
ask why employees want flexible work, but weigh requests based solely on
their business effects. Most have renamed "work-family," policies
"work-life," acknowledging all kinds of off-hours passions.
Also, employers are becoming aware that "workload is a horrendous
issue," causing soaring absenteeism and hurting output, says Barney
Olmsted of New Ways to Work, a San Francisco consulting firm. Some employers
are pushing work site stress-relief programs, such as massage and seminars.
But a deeper remedy lies elsewhere -- in giving workers a little time off.
Some workers say time off is the only route to catharsis amid the nonstop
responsibility of today's jobs. Bank credit officer Melissa Schuck of Portland,
Ore., savors the complete mental break she gets bungee-jumping off 180-foot
bridges. "Once you make the decision to jump, it's done. The rest
is up to gravity and nature, and you can enjoy it," says Ms. Schuck,
27 years old.
Hurtling earthward at 68 miles per hour provides "an amazing rush
... an incredible feeling of flying,
almost weightlessness." She has even trained herself to enjoy the
scenery on the way down, sharpening her senses. Refreshed by the adrenaline
rush, she is "able to settle down and concentrate a little better"
at work, she says.
On Wall Street, 24-hour commerce and a technology-aided barrage of data
make many workers feel they need to react continually, says Alexander Marks,
31, manager of a proprietary trading firm.
Mr. Marks shuts it all off while rock-climbing evenings at ExtraVertical
Climbing Center in Manhattan. Climbing forces him to calmly assess routes,
pick a strategy and stick to it. To avoid falling, "I have no choice
but to clear my mind and put all my concentration into the next move. It
provides a mental toughness and it helps me keep fear and risk in perspective,"
Mr. Marks says. "I return to work with this great sense of having
MANY JOBS heavily emphasize left-brain skills, such as reasoning,
analysis and rule-following. They leave employees yearning for a little
artistry, some right-brain rewards. After 80-hour weeks of crunching numbers
and reporting financial results for Media One Group, Englewood, Colo.,
financial analyst Paula Toussaint savors the warm feelings inspired by
her practice of feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of ordering one's environment
to live in greater harmony.
"In our high-paced world, it's nice to have a spot where you feel
welcomed and refreshed, like you're being nurtured," she says. She
recently helped two friends reorder their homes to suit inner needs. Though
she likes her work, "feng shui has balanced it off, rekindled my zest."
Other workers may crave the joys of hands-on work. Jobs can pose only
abstract, complex demands, leaving workers on the hook for months to show
results. For Joanne Ambras, 43, an internal consultant at Hewlett-Packard,
work with animals is a welcome counterpoint.
She volunteers one day a week rescuing animals at a marine wildlife
center. She recently taught orphaned seals to catch and eat fish. Seeing
immediate results from her work "takes your mind off of everything
else," she says.
Employers reap benefits when they make flexible-hours policies available
for off-beat passions. Ms. Ambras shares her job so she has time for volunteering,
which she says renews her energy. At St. Paul Cos., David Edminster is
able to work 80% time as a business-development analyst, allowing him to
write and perform jazz. Improvising on the sax with his jazz group, the
Screaming Horns of Terror, at Minneapolis clubs gives him a feeling of
"liberation and total spontaneity," he says. "I have a lot
more kick" upon returning to work.