By now, it certainly shouldn’t be news to any of us that taking time off is vital to our health and happiness. Studies show that getting away from work helps us sleep better and lifts our mood. Taking a vacation lowers our stress levels and may even reduce our risk of heart disease in the future.
We know too, that taking time off can boost our productivity and performance at work, especially when we use that time to explore new places. Research suggests that people who travel more do better at work, and there’s also evidence that taking vacation days can improve our creativity.
Despite all this evidence, many of us still struggle to put our knowledge into action when it comes to taking time away from work. We might believe that vacation time is important, but we aren’t actually using it – only 48% of US workers use their full leave allowance, according to a 2023 survey by Pew Research.
Even when we do manage to pry ourselves away from our desks, our technology keeps us more closely tethered to the office than we were in the past. 82% of Americans say they work while on vacation, according to a 2021 poll by PerfectResume.
The same poll found that 42% of us are taking vacation days to catch up on work.
Clearly, we’re in danger of losing the ability to relax, even when we’re on vacation. And this is bad news for us on both a personal and a professional level.
Being unable to step away from work has plenty of negative effects – it increases stress, impacts our sleep, and causes tension in our personal lives. It also reduces our performance at work, as well as lowering our sense of job satisfaction.
And for those of us in leadership roles, not using our vacation time appropriately sends a harmful message to our employees, who might then feel obligated to work during their own vacations.
If you are among the many people who struggle to fully relax and step away from work when you are on vacation, we’re here to help. In this blog post, we’ll share some tips and ideas to help you switch off from work and take full advantage of the restorative benefits of your vacation time.
1. Understand What’s Holding You Back
We looked briefly at some of the benefits of taking time off in the introduction to this blog. It’s unlikely that any of them came as a surprise to you.
When asked directly, most of us say we think time off work is essential for our wellbeing. 62% of workers say that having a job that offers paid leave is important to them personally. But playing lip service to the value of vacation days is not the same as truly demonstrating their value through our own actions.
Perhaps you feel that taking time away from the office will put an unnecessary burden on other people. Maybe you worry that not being around all the time will hurt your chances of progression. Or maybe you are simply so busy that stepping away for even a few days feels impossible.
Before you can take a vacation that truly feels relaxing and rejuvenating, you need to understand what’s currently stopping you from feeling like you can take time off.
Once you’ve shone a light on some of the barriers (real or perceived) that are preventing you from using your vacation time effectively, you can start to put some strategies in place to overcome them.
2. Plan in Advance
We don’t just mean plan your vacation (although you should probably do that too!). Making a plan for how work will be covered while you are away can relieve any anxiety you feel about leaving your desk and help you relax on your vacation.
We’re all busy and often everything on our to-do lists feels like an urgent priority. But when you sit down and consider each item in turn, you may well find that most can wait until you get back, as long as you communicate clearly with colleagues and other stakeholders.
If there are deadlines or tasks that can’t wait, consider what you can reasonably get done in advance of your vacation and what needs to be delegated to someone else to cover while you are away. Be prepared to do the same for your colleagues when they take time off, so it feels like a reciprocal arrangement and not a burden you are placing on them.
With a clear plan in place, you can allow yourself to relax, safe in the knowledge that everything will keep going until your return.
3. Set Clear Expectations
Another important pre-vacation task is making sure everyone is completely clear that you’ll be away for a week or two and won’t be easily contactable during that time.
This is especially vital if you’ve been in the habit of checking emails while on vacation in the past. If your colleagues are used to being able to contact you even when you aren’t working, you’ll need to let them know that you are going to change this behavior.
With any luck, it might also inspire others to think about any bad habits they’ve slipped into.
For the people you work with closely, you may want to send a calendar invite that details your vacation dates, so they can see from their own calendars that you are away and don’t expect a reply during that period.
Depending on your role, you may want to alert key external contacts too. Remember to tell them who they can contact instead if there is something urgent that can’t wait until you get back.
Then, set your out-of-office message and use it to reiterate that you’ll be away, and you won’t be checking messages. Provide and alternative contact for urgent matters. And give an expected timeline for when you’ll be able to reply – remembering to give yourself a buffer of a few days when you return so that you don’t feel immediately under pressure to get back to everyone straight away.
Most email programs give you the option to set different out-of-office messages for internal and external contacts, you so can tailor this appropriately.
4. Leave the Office Behind
You’ve done everything you can to set yourself up for a relaxing time away – tackled your mindset around taking vacation time, planned work cover, and communicated clearly to colleagues and external contacts. So, it’s now time to leave the office behind you – and we mean completely.
Our access to technology means that most of us now carry our work with us wherever we go. As a result, switching off from work is no longer as simple as being physically away from the office.
Before you start your vacation, take some steps to reduce reminders of work. If you use your personal phone for work, log out of your emails, messaging programs, and project management apps. Mute any work-related Slack/Teams groups. And remove any shortcuts to work apps from your home screen so that you aren’t tempted to click on them.
If you have a work phone, switch it off and put it away out of sight in a drawer or a bag. The same goes for your laptop. If you are going to be traveling away from home, leave the phone and laptop behind.
Make a commitment to yourself to not think about work or check work emails/messages during your vacation time.
If it helps you feel secure enough to do this, you could agree on an emergency contact procedure with a trusted colleague. Then, if there is something that genuinely needs your attention (that no one else can deal with), you know that you are contactable. That knowledge might help to free you from the niggling suspicion that a disaster has cropped up in your absence and prevent you from checking emails unnecessarily.
If you do take this route, make sure you have clearly agreed with your colleague on what constitutes an emergency. Their idea of what is urgent may be different to yours.
5. Vacation According to Your Needs
So far, we’ve mainly covered what to put in place at work so that you can relax on your vacation. Now, let’s turn our attention to how to make the best use of your time away from work.
We’ve all had the experience of returning after a packed vacation and feeling like we need another week off to recover. While travel and new experiences can do wonders for our creativity and inspiration, they can also be tiring and stressful – especially if done with small children in tow!
This isn’t to say that you should spend every vacation in your own backyard. Staycations are a great option and can be wonderfully relaxing, but there are also plenty of benefits to getting away from your familiar day-to-day environment.
The risk of spending your vacation days at home is that you end up concentrating on personal chores instead of relaxing. Of course, if being behind on household tasks and projects is stressing you out, this might be a valuable use of your time.
But if you are feeling tired and uninspired in your daily routine, getting away can be just what you need to rejuvenate yourself.
Research shows that how we spend our vacation time matters to the level of relaxation we feel during and after our time away from work.
For example, you are more likely to feel rested and recuperated if your vacation includes free time for yourself, good quality sleep, and some level of physical activity.
Going away to warmer places can also help us feel more relaxed, as can meeting new people. How much time you spend in conversation with the people you love while on vacation also affects your wellbeing, according to a study published in Stress and Health.
In contrast, going somewhere that has a significantly different time zone can reduce the benefits of your vacation time for your state of relaxation, presumably because of the added stress of travel and jet lag. Of course, negative experiences while away can also make your vacation less relaxing – as anyone who has ever battled delayed flights or lost luggage can attest.
In other words, if you are feeling stressed and tired at work, this is probably not the moment to plan a packed itinerary in a far-flung destination. You’ll likely benefit more from a lower-key vacation closer to home, with a focus on slowing down and spending time doing things that bring you joy.
On the other hand, if you are feeling relatively rested and in control at work, traveling further afield might work for you. Research shows that travel can increase our levels of creativity and cognitive flexibility.
6. Give Yourself a Buffer
While we’re on the topic of not overdoing it on vacation, let’s talk about how you use your time off most effectively.
The temptation for all of us is to wring every last second of time from our vacation days, which can mean we end up traveling at odd hours or only giving ourselves a short amount of time between work and travel.
However relaxing your vacation itself was, traveling itself is usually stressful, even when nothing goes wrong. On the way out, our excitement might overcome any negativity from travel, but we don’t have that same mood boost to soften the trip home again.
Arriving back to find you need to deal with suitcases full of dirty laundry and an empty fridge is enough of a crash landing without also rushing straight back to work and your overflowing inbox. So, do yourself a favor and plan a day or two buffer between returning home and getting back to work.
It might feel like a waste of vacation days, but having that buffer gives you the opportunity to return to everyday ide a piece at a time, instead of going straight from vacation to work mode.
In turn, this will help you carry those positive feelings of relaxation and wellbeing from your vacation with you longer.
We know it is important to take time off from work, but relaxing on vacation is easier said than done. By making a solid plan, communicating clearly with colleagues, and planning your vacation time appropriately, you can make the most of the rejuvenating effects of a break from work.