QI work in a busy, high-pressure office, and most of my colleagues are online even on days off or vacations. I feel like I need a complete break when I'm off; how can I do that without looking like a slacker?

AIt's healthy to value that type of balance, and you can communicate this in a way that sends a positive message.

The inner game

First, settle in and take stock of your feelings. You may be anxious about how you'll be perceived or frustrated with the expectations you're sensing. You may be worried about all the work that awaits you upon your return. Or you may fear that you aren't really needed. Take some deep breaths, get calm, and focus on the validity of your need for a break.

Now think realistically. Are there likely to be judgments about your work ethic if you're offline on days off, or are those projections based on internal anxieties? Assess the underlying drivers of any comments you've heard about other employees; they could be related to envy of their colleague's ability to set limits, or it may be that the absent employee didn't leave others prepared for their absence. Consider others who successfully take your approach to time off work.

Finally, reorient yourself with your values about work/life balance, and your insights on ways to maintain your productivity and creativity. This will help you approach this situation from a positive perspective, which will help you effectively get your point across.

The outer game

When you know you're taking time off, whether it's two days or two weeks, make plans to communicate your absence, delegate your work, and catch up once you're back. Here are some practical steps:

•Give some notice. If you'll be out for a week, let people know early the week before so that if they'll need something from you, they'll have a chance to ask. This includes internal colleagues and clients. This step alone can dramatically reduce the angst from an unexpected absence.

•Plan ahead on your deliverables to ensure that you've completed any work or negotiated timelines before you leave.

•Have a knowledgeable and well-prepared backup, along with a plan to reach you if it's essential.

•Have helpful out-of-office messages on e-mail and voicemail.

Be clear with people: You need a true break from work to really recharge. Be an advocate for balance, and create it as an expectation for those around you. For example, don't take advantage of people working during vacations to get a question answered, and respect your staff members' needs to have a break.

Finally, follow through. Don't answer e-mails while you're away; it may be hard, but give yourself the break that you know you need. As soon as you return, do a quick triage to be sure that you address the most pressing needs first and have meetings scheduled with key folks to get caught up.

The last word

Be a cheerleader for balance, setting a good example for those around you. You'll be happier and more productive when you return.

What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at liz@deliverchange.com.