It’s a Catch-22 millions of workers face: You plan a vacation to relax, rejuvenate, and forget all about the stresses of work. But being out of the office means cramming in extra work up until you leave — and making up for lost time once you return. So perhaps it’s little surprise that a study in the Netherlands found vacationers are no happier than non-vacationers after a break.
But this problem can be particularly acute in the United States, where the culture often pressures people not to take vacations at all: more than half (52%) of American workers leave at least some vacation time unused. Pre- and post-vacation stress is a major contributor to this problem. In a survey, 40% of men, and 46% of women said that just thinking about the “mountain of work” they’d return to was a major reason they hadn’t used their vacation days.
A different survey also found that taking time off was a source of anxiety, even though paid vacation was a benefit they’d earned. “In the past two weeks, I’ve worked 24 extra hours, at least,” said one respondent preparing for time away; another, who’d just returned from vacation, expressed the mirror-image problem: “I have felt very stressed about the amount of time it is taking to catch up.”
This reflects concerns I’ve heard as a meditation coach for people in all parts of the corporate world. I regularly hear from them when they’re most stressed — which, all too often, comes just before and after vacations. Over time, by advising clients and coming up with strategies for myself, I’ve pinpointed crucial steps that help minimize stress while maximizing productivity.
Much of the groundwork for a lower-stress return from vacation happens before you ever leave the office.
Build relaxation into your routine. You don’t have to put off letting go of stress until vacation. In general, I recommend taking a few minutes to meditate every day. As vacation gets closer, try to visualize what it will be like. If you don’t have time to immerse yourself in a full meditation experience, at the very least take on the posture (sit tall, spine straight) while breathing deeply, using more lung capacity, and imagine the positive feeling you want to gain while you’re away, such as clarity or calm. These simple techniques help achieve a more meditative state at any time, and will help you focus and maintain some calm as you take the rest of these steps.
Prioritize. A few weeks before your vacation, make a list of the tasks that absolutely must be done before you go. Show it to your manager and get their feedback. Then, use this mutually agreed-upon list to set priorities and plan your work for each day. Other tasks and opportunities will pop up, but unless they’re essential, focus on your list. If you don’t stick to your priorities, your tasks — and your stress — will pile up.
Notice that I said, “a few weeks before.” Don’t wait until the week of your vacation to do this. If you are taking a week off, start at least two weeks earlier. If you’re taking two weeks off, start prioritizing a month before you go.
Send out the word. Make sure your boss, colleagues, and clients know the dates you’ll be gone. Tell them you plan to unplug during vacation. This helps put the onus on them to bring you anything essential before you go. You can even put the dates of your upcoming vacation in your email signature as a reminder that you’ll be away.
Some people worry that being out of reach will damage these relationships, but I’ve found consistently that the opposite is true. People are impressed by those who commit to their vacation time as thoroughly as they commit to their work.
Establish a handoff. In most businesses, someone can handle certain tasks that might pop up while you’re away — or, at the very least, explain to clients that you will handle them upon your return. Figure out who can best handle each part of your job, and ask that person if they can cover for you while you’re out. Offer to do the same for them sometime. Send them a follow-up email thanking them for their help, and including any information they might need. Let your boss know who will be handling what while you’re gone.
It might sound like overkill, but knowing that you have someone capable in place to handle this for you can go a long way toward relieving your own stress. And it will help ensure that your colleagues feel genuinely responsible for covering those tasks while you’re out. That means less work to return to when you’re back.
Straighten up your desk. This may sound counterintuitive. Why add more tasks to your pre-vacation checklist? The reason is simple: clutter can increase stress. Having a neater environment to come back to will help ease your return from vacation.
Compose your out-of-office message. Consider how you might customize it so that there’s less work to return to. For example, you might say that you won’t be responding to emails received while you’re on vacation, and encourage your emailers to send you the message again after you return if it’s still relevant. If you can, you may want your out-of-office message to tell clients and others that you’ll be back and available on a Tuesday or Wednesday, even if you’re actually back on a Monday. Block out your calendar that first day back so you aren’t inundated with meetings.
That study on Dutch vacation-takers found that there is a subset of vacationers who do feel better after their time away: people who had “very relaxed” trips. Your trip is your chance to really recharge. Make sure you make the most of it:
Set an intention. Many people are goal-oriented at work. Try applying that same skill to your vacation. Decide that you will focus on feeling more joyful, energized, or calm.
Actually unplug. When you’ve made the decision to leave work fully behind, your mind and body are much more likely to achieve the kind of relaxation you deserve. And limiting your use of technology in general makes it more likely you’ll enjoy and appreciate your time off. (How often have you picked up your phone or laptop just to look at it, then noticed that an hour or more had suddenly slipped by?)
Immerse. Take walks through nature. Notice the sounds. Smell the fresh air. Swim in a lake. Go to a spa. My clients who take part in these kinds of immersive activities, engaging their senses, end up feeling much more relaxed at the end of a vacation.
As a mom of three, I know that this can sound easier than it is. This is why I recommend planning some of these activities in advance and ensuring that you have at least some moments entirely to yourself.
If you’ve laid the groundwork before your vacation, and thoroughly enjoyed your time away, you’re already most of the way to having a less-stressful return. But even if you totally failed to prioritize or prepare before your trip, and even if the trip itself turned into a mess of delayed flights, screaming kids, and missed trains, there are still things you can do to make your return less frenzied:
Make a plan. You don’t have to arrive at work, plug back in, have tasks come cascading onto you and try to handle everything immediately. Take the first thirty minutes of your return to make a list of priorities. You can do this even before checking your inbox — we often have a broader perspective after a few days or weeks away. Giving yourself time to piece through what’s on your plate, design and enact a strategy can go a long way toward increasing productivity and decreasing stress.
Reset priorities. Your most important tasks now may not match those from before your break. Check in with key people on your first day back to discuss what you missed and what most urgently needs your attention. Thank anyone who covered for you, and ask them what they need from you now. If you feel you have to read the emails that came in while you were away, start by scanning your inbox for key names like your boss or a big client — and read those first. Search your inbox for mass-mailing keywords (like “unsubscribe”) and just mark those as read or delete them.
Check in with yourself. As you resume work, ask if you’re still fulfilling the intention you set for your vacation: Am I feeling more joyful, energized, or calm? Take moments to remember some of the best experiences of your trip, and use those to guide yourself toward that intention. When you do this, you’ll start to notice and counteract some of the stress that’s setting in. You’ll remind yourself that your batteries are recharged, and that you are up to the task.
And, of course, meditate. Just a few minutes can bring you a world of benefits, including increasing creativity. It can even change your brain.
You deserve a restorative vacation. You’ve earned it. You don’t deserve additional stress for taking it. By following these steps, you’ll be able to have the benefits of a real break, and make them last.