You deserve a break today!

We could all use a little more relaxation, but vacation time is limited in this country. While European countries routinely give employees four weeks off every year, Americans make do with a paltry two weeks. And in the health club industry getting time off is especially difficult, particularly if you're the owner/manager of a small club.

Still, time off is essential. "It's not healthy to just be married to your business," says Matthew Wagner, Ph.D., owner of the Nautilus Health Center, a 24/7 club in Huntsville, Texas, and a 20-year industry veteran. "But if you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said I don't get to take a vacation because I had to build my business."

"I'm a firm believer that people need to take care of themselves in order to be able to take care of business," says Debra Siena, regional vice president of Tennis Corp. of America in Chicago.

Owners/operators of clubs, in particular, need time to refresh themselves. When you're the top person, you don't have a manager who takes care of you, motivates you and makes sure that you're OK and balanced and happy. Therefore, an owner must take responsibility to make sure he preserves himself. If he loses his effectiveness, everyone else suffers.

Convinced you should now take that long overdue time off? Before you make your plane reservations, do some advance planning, advise Siena and Wagner. They recommend that you:

* Give at least four-months notice to your staff. "The sooner you know when you're going to go, the better," says Siena. "And make sure no other key person will be traveling during that time." If, for instance, you know in May you're going to leave town for Thanksgiving, start telling your staff then. And let new hires know that they should plan on working that weekend.

* Choose a person who will be in charge when you're away and start training him or her well in advance. "Empower that person beforehand," says Siena. Unsure whom to choose? "Pick the most competent person on your staff, someone who has been with you a while," advises Siena.

* Have systems in place. Siena recalls that when she was starting out, she went away for four days only to return and find that during her absence the StairMasters had gone down. They were plugged into one another in a daisy chain and then one plug went into the wall socket. It turned out someone had tripped over the main plug and pulled it from the wall. "No one took the basic action needed to solve this problem," she says. "I dropped the ball on accountability."

Her solution: a team manual, which basically outlined what to do in every possible crisis. "You have to have the systems in place so you're not so dependent on people," she says. "You need to be able to depend upon the systems to work and then you teach people the systems. Empower the whole team so everyone knows these systems."

* Do a walk-through. "You can't give your point person a concrete list of when to call you," says Siena. "It's more working with the main point person and helping him feel competent enough to handle day-to-day things." At some point, say to the person, "In what type of situation would you feel you had to call me?" Challenge the person to come up with the list and then teach him the things you don't want to be called about and agree on the things you do.

* Schedule call-ins. You may want to decide upon a set time when you will call in during your vacation and find out how things are going or deal with any pressing issues. "Tell your point person, 'I will call you Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 a.m. If anything happens that can wait, save it for those calls,' " advises Siena. "If there's an emergency, call before then."

* Have your manager take a vacation before you do. "While he's gone, you can see what he has been doing," says Wagner. "Give him time off so you can dive in and see exactly what he has been doing to your business."

* Schedule your vacation to coincide with slow times. "January is our busiest month, so I don't take a vacation then," says Wagner. "October and November are very slow for us. It's a good time to get away. During December, things are starting to crank up and you're making preparations for the start of the year. Bam! You've got to be there."

* Let your comfort level determine the length of your vacation. "The length of your vacation depends upon the trust you have in your systems and people," says Siena. "The less comfortable you feel, the shorter your vacation should be." But if four days is all you can manage, "set up a better system when you return and empower people, so the next time you can take seven days," she advises.

* Ease into longer vacations. "After a year, you should be able to take a full week," says Siena. "If you are tentative, try a long weekend. Come back and ask, 'OK, what happened? Where did I drop the ball? What can I do differently?' "

Because of the demands of his 24/7 club, Wagner opts for mini-vacations - such as long weekends. "Thursday through Sunday, things slow down and I try to get away on those days. We'll do shorter vacations, but more frequent ones." Wagner recalls that the first time he took a week off, "whenever the phone rang, I thought something was wrong. I couldn't relax. When I take shorter vacations, I feel a lot more comfortable. A lot less can happen in four days as opposed to seven or 14."

* Relax. "I had to get away," says Wagner, who put vacations on the back burner when he was building his business. "I was going nuts. It was closing in one me. And honestly the club ran smoother when I wasn't there. We worry so much about our business, but maybe when you're not there, you decrease the stress level on your employees and they want to rise to the occasion and work harder."