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How to Take a Relaxing Vacation Without Stressing About Work

7 minute read

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It’s official: burnout is a real condition. On May 25, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally defined the syndrome as energy depletion, exhaustion and negativity resulting from chronic workplace stress.

Taking a vacation when you feel burnt out is probably one of the most common remedies. Unfortunately, time away from the office isn’t always as stress-free as it sounds. A 2018 survey from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 21% of U.S. adults felt stressed during their time off and 28% worked more than they thought they would on vacation — and this can have detrimental effects. Working while you’re supposed to be unwinding can negatively impact your relationships, take you away from the present moment and sink your mood, research finds.

In short: “Blurred boundaries between work and time off can be bad for your health,” says Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of the Mindful Living Network and the Stress Institute.

In order to relax fully on vacation, psychology experts say your employer must respect that time off (and your boundaries) while you’re away. But no matter your situation at work, these six strategies can help you unplug — and find a little more R&R — while you’re on vacation.

Share Your Plans Before You Leave

Preparing for a vacation at work is a critical, often overlooked factor of being able to stay present while away. That’s why experts encourage touching base with both your boss and co-workers ahead of your trip. Consider addressing the main functions you’ll need to have covered while you’re away and a plan for how to deal with certain scenarios should they arise, says David Ballard, director of the office of applied psychology at the APA. Taking these preemptive steps can help eliminate the worry that something will slip through the cracks, he says.

It’s also important to share what your availability will be while you’re away so everyone’s expectations line up, Ballard adds.

Do Away With Mindless Checking

“Our brains are wired to technology,” Hall says. “And we are wired into our work and co-workers.” A 2016 study conducted by research company Dscout demonstrated this growing obsession with personal tech devices, finding the average person touches his or her smartphone 2,617 times a day. The top 10% of phone users touch their screens up to 5,427 times in a 24-hour period. Just because someone is on vacation doesn’t mean the phone gets put down, Hall notes.

One of the biggest stressors that arises from being connected isn’t so much the work messages coming through but the mere thought of that work. “This idea that you might get an email, this kind of always worrying about being connected seems to be much more damaging,” says Bill Becker, an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business who studies organizational behavior.

After all, worrying often comes with constant checking — for emails, pings and alerts. “Continuous attention-shifting keeps you in your work mindset and doesn’t allow you to disconnect and recharge,” Becker says.

Ballard notes that to recover from stress, people need both time not working and time not thinking about work — and constant messages from co-workers inhibit this from happening.

The solution to avoiding frequent interruptions is different for everyone. For some, checking email once a day or even doing half an hour of work, then putting the phone away, can mitigate mindless checking, says Becker. Others might benefit from a planned day of no cell service or only having access to Wi-Fi during parts of the day (like in your hotel room), says Jaime Kurtz, an associate professor of psychology at James Madison University and author of The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations.

Spend Time Outside As Much As Possible

“Nature has an incredible power to relax and heal us,” says Hall — especially if you work in an office setting and lack sufficient time outside in your day-to-day. Research into the potential effects of nature on a person’s mood supports Hall’s claim.

A 2014 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, for instance, found a strong correlation between participants’ feelings of being connected to nature and their positive effect, vitality and overall life satisfaction when compared to those who felt less in touch with the outdoors. The American Heart Association also recommends spending time outside to reduce stress and anxiety, and boost your overall mental well-being.

To take full advantage of the outdoors — and soak up what you’re missing when you’re looking down at work devices — Hall suggests focusing on your senses, like marveling at a blue sky or taking in the smell of salt water.

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Know How You Relax Best

Research finds that the best “stress recovery experiences” — those that help people recoup from stress and return to life (and work) more refreshed — involve some kind of relaxing behavior, says Ballard. That may sound obvious, but such experiences are different for everyone, he says. While yoga or a long walk might do the trick for some, others might need more intense physical exertion to feel relaxed, like a hike, Kurtz adds. Think about how you relax when you’re not on vacation, then make sure to integrate those activities into your days.

Non-work activities that stimulate the mind help us recover from work stress, too, says Ballard. Whether it’s strolling through a museum, taking a cooking class or learning to sail, an activity that engages your mind is beneficial to de-stressing.

Be Spontaneous

If you only have a few days in a new place, you might be tempted to plan out every moment of your time. But spontaneity is one of the primary contributors to people’s happiness on vacation, says Kurtz. A 2018 study published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology found that people tend to enjoy planned leisure activities less than those that aren’t scheduled partly because the implicit time constraints of a schedule can loom and take you out of the “now.”

“Packing your schedule full of activities or only the ‘best’ restaurants can, in some ways, set you up for disappointment and exhaustion,” Kurtz says. Letting things unfold organically and going with the flow, on the other hand, make vacations unique, as regular life doesn’t always afford the same flexibility, she says. Plus, having an open schedule can keep you available for new adventures and experiences — like stumbling upon a bustling restaurant you might have otherwise missed.

Plan Your Re-Entry

While many people tend to plan their exits from work, most don’t think about how they’re going to return, says Ballard. Going back to work and feeling immediately stressed can wipe away the benefits of a vacation in just days, he says.

To prevent this scenario, Ballard suggests blocking out time on your calendar to catch up on emails immediately when you return or even arranging to work from home on the Monday after your trip. Building in a transition period can allow you to regain a manageable work pace and workload, he says, so you don’t get overwhelmed.

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