Prioritizing PTO & the Power of Mini-Breaks, According to Psychologist Dr. Jennifer L. Hartstein
Updated: Aug 10
Dr. Jen is a recognized child, adolescent, and family psychologist based in New York City. Read on to learn about the recurring themes she sees in her practice, the importance of taking mini-breaks, and why it’s important to prioritize Paid Time Off.
We had the wonderful honor of getting to know Dr. Jennifer L. Hartstein, nationally known as Dr. Jen who is a recognized child, adolescent and family psychologist based in New York City. Dr. Jen is currently in private practice in New York City, specializing in the treatment of high-risk children and adolescents. She is the owner and founder of Hartstein Psychological Services, PLLC, a group psychotherapy practice. She’s the mental health contributor for Yahoo! Lifestyle and Yahoo! News. She’s also a frequent psychological contributor for NBC’s The Today Show, a national morning news program. Dr. Jen was a Mental Health Core Expert for The Dr. Oz Show and was the psychological/lifestyle contributor on CBS’ The Early Show. Dr. Jen is also the author of Princess Recovery: A How-to Guide to Raising Empowered Girls who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters.
Dr. Jen has her hands full, to say the least. When we asked her about her personal mantras for staying focused, productive, and positive during COVID-19, she shared her top two mantras:
“Breathe: Sometimes it is so easy to get wrapped up in the chaos all around that you forget to take that deep breath and focus on what you need. I frequently need a reminder.”
“It’s okay to take a break: It’s the nature of my job to take care of others. And, if I’m not taking care of myself too, I’m not really of any help to anyone. It’s important that I remind myself to take a break, however that may look. Maybe it’s taking a walk, watching some TV, taking a nap, or just shifting from a Zoom meeting to a phone call. Whatever works in that moment is something worth doing.”
Read on to learn about the recurring themes she sees in her practice, the importance of taking mini breaks, and why it’s important to prioritize Paid Time Off.
Dr. Jen, as a practicing psychologist and mental health contributor, what are some recurring themes you come across regarding why people have a hard time managing a healthy work / life balance?
Dr. Jen: We are working harder than ever as a result of working from home. We don’t have the commutes we normally have that give us the time to ease into work and the time to ease out of work. We also don’t have the breaks we frequently have when working in the office (popping into a friend’s office, going out for lunch or a coffee). As a result of working harder, we are feeling more stressed. For those working, they often feel as though they have to do more and stay more connected. There is a lot of discussion about how to create space for oneself to help decrease burnout.
Adding to this, many people’s hours have been cut back. So, some of the stress is related to having to rely on family members for help or not being able to get the jobs/do the jobs that they would like. That creates a different kind of stress.
We are surrounded by a sense of anxiety in the world, which is only increased by the intensity of needing to find work or maintain work. Stress management is probably the biggest thing we discuss.
"Mini-breaks can provide much needed stress relief to people and may feel “better” than taking a string of days linked together, especially during the pandemic."
How has COVID-19 affected your private practice in NYC?
Dr. Jen: The biggest way that COVID-19 has impacted my private practice is that we all had to shift toward teletherapy. Luckily, technology today allows us to continue to work with clients, so we did not have to lose time helping our clients. I think, too, more people are realizing the importance of therapy, so we are continuing to grow to meet the ongoing demand.
Based on your research and experience, why are professionals reluctant to take time off?
Dr. Jen: It’s often hard to put ourselves first, even when that would be most effective. Many professionals feel that they want to work hard in order to reap the long-term benefits. Sadly, when we do this, we don’t always realize that we are burning ourselves out. But, we push aside our own needs for what we believe is the “greater good.” It’s usually an incorrect approach, and we get caught in it regardless.
Professionals are hesitating to take time off, now more than ever, which is detrimental to their mental health. As you mentioned in this Yahoo News! piece, people shouldn’t feel guilty about taking time off from work during the pandemic. But so many people are worried about wasting their vacation days. Can you speak more to the importance of taking time away from work, even if there are travel restrictions in place?
Dr. Jen: We can’t travel the way we are accustomed to, at least not right now. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to take time off. Time off allows us to relax, recharge and refocus. All of these things are important to do in order to make us better workers. Even if your time off means staying home, watching TV just chilling out, that’s important. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be effective in your job (that’s part of why we take vacations in the first place). So, take the time off!
In your opinion, why is it important for professionals to take frequent breaks from work (a few hours here and there or micro-vacations) rather than waiting to use all of their vacation days on a week-long vacation?
Dr. Jen: Current research shows that smaller self-care breaks can be as effective as one longer cumulative time. Mini-breaks can provide much-needed stress relief to people and may feel “better” than taking a string of days linked together, especially during the pandemic. So, maybe it’s working a 4 day week for a while and using your days that way; or taking off Friday and Monday once a month. Whatever it is, taking some time helps with stress management.
"We have to prioritize PTO, as taking time off does help people be better employees."
Burn out has been an issue for quite some time, long before COVID-19. How can employers play a bigger role in protecting employees’ mental health?
Dr. Jen: I think employers are more aware of burnout now than ever before. It’s important for leaders to be consistently checking in with their employees to see how they are doing (and really listen to the answers). It’s also important for leaders to model the behaviors that they want to see in their employees and to provide opportunities for them to take time off, take breaks, etc. Creating opportunities for open communication can be helpful in preventing burnout, too.
Your book, Princess Recovery: A How-to Guide to Raising Empowered Girls who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters, is available for order on Amazon. What lessons can adult professionals take away from this book, specifically around how they can think about leisure time?
Dr. Jen: I think one of the ways my book can help all ages is that it focuses on what we are doing vs. how we look doing it. We are often so focused on appearance that we lose sight of why we might be doing something. Leisure time can fit into this question, for sure. We show everyone how great the vacation is (because it looks good in pictures) versus just enjoying and being in it, recognizing the purpose of connection or relaxation. If adults can take anything from the book, I think they can focus on the why vs. the what and the experience vs. the appearance.
In addition to your practice, you are part of the Practitioner Alliance of We’re All a Little “Crazy,” a global mental health initiative...can you tell us more about that and how it applies to working professionals?
Dr. Jen: We’re All a Little “Crazy” is a wonderful organization that is working to help people recognize that mental health is a #5in5 issue, despite so much of the messaging out there focusing on the #1in5 that has a mental illness. We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. In fact, the two things overlap. If our mental health begins to suffer, so, too, will other areas in our life. We’re All A Little “Crazy” brings this discussion into people’s daily conversations, helping us all realize what we need to do to help ourselves stay healthy.
How do you think COVID-19 will shift the way professionals think about their Paid Time Off (PTO), long after the pandemic is over?
Dr. Jen: I think it’s going to be important for businesses to continue to encourage people to use their PTO. It’s easy for businesses to take advantage of their employees (even if it is unintentional) because we are all working so differently. We are going toward something different, and who knows what that will be, so we have to think about how work in general is going to be structured. Within that structure, we have to prioritize PTO, as taking time off does help people be better employees.
"Time off allows us to relax, recharge and refocus. All of these things are important to do in order to make us better workers."
Why do you think working professionals should utilize a Time Off Optimization tool, like Sorbet, to help schedule and plan their PTO?
Dr. Jen: It’s always helpful to have a tool to help people keep the things that are important front of mind. I think PTO has become a secondary idea, when in fact, it should be a primary thing for workers. Having a tool like Sorbet can help everyone to ensure that our mental health and productivity stay sharp.
What’s on deck for you in 2021?
Dr. Jen: First thing for 2021, I’m hoping to be able to see family that is spread out across the country and those who I haven’t been able to see! Secondly, I’m hoping to begin a foundation within my practice to be able to provide support to those who may not be able to afford therapy. And, maybe I’ll finally get started on a second book. I’ll be sure to be taking some time off, for sure!