Career Advice

How To Keep Back-to-Work Anxiety From Ruining Those Last Precious Moments of Time Off

Stocksy/Jayme-Burrows
Whenever I take time off from work, I mentally subtract the last day or two of my scheduled break for what is essentially the Sunday scaries on steroids. Anxiety about going back to work after vacation haunts me as I consider the avalanche of tasks and emails that await. Typically, I’ll flip open my laptop and dive in well before my PTO wraps up, ultimately allowing work to get in the way of the vacation I took to, well, get away from work.

As it turns out, I’m far from alone in feeling stressed about heading back to work after vacation. A 2018 American Psychological Association (APA) survey of about 1,500 people found that 28 percent wound up working more than they planned to while on vacation, and 42 percent dreaded returning to work afterward. And another survey of about 1,200 people conducted by Harris Poll and tech-company Zapier in July 2020 clocked that number of people dreading work post-vacation at a whopping 87 percent.

But despite how daunting it may feel in practice, taking true time off really is worth your while (if your work situation makes that feasible). Not only can it help mitigate burnout and even boost your workplace success upon your return, but also, taking enough of it (that is, at least eight consecutive days) may lift your mood, and with time, even increase your longevity.

To that end, finding ways to steer clear of post-vacation anxiety is essential to keep this undue stress from interfering with all the benefits that time off has to offer in the first place. Below, career experts walk through steps you can take before and during any vacation to keep back-to-work nerves at bay.

How to reclaim those final few hours of time off and spare yourself anxiety about going back to work after vacation

What to do before your time off

If you’re able to carve out some time to prepare for your time off (however counterintuitive that may sound), it’ll make coming back to work after vacation that much more seamless. You may already know to set an OOO message on your email and to block your calendar for your time away, but Erin Grau, COO and co-founder of workplace wellness consultancy Charter, suggests going one step further with your prep. “Put together a simple OOO plan, solidifying whom people should contact in your absence, and how ongoing projects will be handled while you’re out,” she says.

“Deciding in advance what constitutes ‘done’ will keep you from spending your precious days off worrying about what work you could've been doing.” —Anna Dearmon Kornick, time-management coach

In prepping for your time away, it's key to determine what amount of completed work is enough, says time-management coach Anna Dearmon Kornick, head of community at Clockwise. “It’s so important to have a clear stopping point in mind in order to combat Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time allotted,” she says. “Deciding in advance what constitutes ‘done’ will keep you from spending your precious days off worrying about what work you could've been doing.”

Before you go, it’s also smart to touch base with your manager to align on priorities for that pre-OOO plan, discuss how you'll get back up to speed upon your return, and outline boundaries for your time away.

To guide that last bit, Kornick suggests asking yourself these questions: What am I willing to do during my PTO? What am I not willing to do during my PTO? What constitutes a work emergency? And what can wait until I return? “When you identify and articulate your boundaries in advance, you’re much more likely to hold firm to them when you’re on vacation,” she says.

To help reinforce those boundaries, it's also a good idea to share with your colleagues what you’ll be doing while you’re off. “You might tell them you’ll be out with your family decorating the tree or making cookies, or that you’ve taken some time to enjoy skiing in Vermont,” says career coach Natalie McVeigh, managing director in the Center for Individual and Organizational Performance at EisnerAmper. “This is a great way to encourage those in your work life to help you create truly restful space,” she says.

If your time off involves travel, you might also consider leaving a day (or part of a day) at the end of your trip to just be home—not to dive into work in advance of your return, but to fully regroup, says psychologist Jaime Kurtz, PhD, author of The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations: “You can use that time to do laundry, meal prep, and get a good night’s sleep.” That serves the dual purpose of directing your mind toward non-work tasks, while also setting you up for a comfortable and confident post-vacation return.

What to do during your time off

To stay in touch with co-workers or go fully off the grid? That is the million-dollar question. According to Kornick, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. “I’m not going to tell you to never check your email during PTO, and I won’t advocate that you do zero work while you’re off the clock,” she says. “But I will encourage you to do what feels right to you. If a daily email sweep helps you feel calm and on top of things, let yourself have that sweep, though I’d suggest setting a timer for five or 10 minutes, so you’re in, out, and back to enjoying your time off.”

"You can ask for boundaries, but conditioning people to respect them is on you." —Natalie McVeigh, career coach

That said, if you expressed to co-workers that you’d be disconnecting in full ahead of leaving, it’s wise to do so, says McVeigh. “You can ask for boundaries, but conditioning people to respect them is on you. So, if the emails keep coming and you keep responding to them, it just makes it easier for the emails to continue,” she says.

To prevent that situation, consider recruiting a significant other, friend, or family member for some good old accountability. “Make an agreement not to talk about work during your time off, and include fun ‘penalties’—like activities you’ll need to do—for mentioning work,” says organizational-behavior expert William Becker, PhD, an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business.

Whenever you feel some anxiety start to percolate about going back to work after vacation, consider a deliberate mindset shift. “Remind yourself that you earned and deserve PTO, and you don't need to feel guilty about taking it or anything that happens while you are gone,” says Dr. Becker. Another idea? Re-contextualize your time off in terms of how it’ll actually benefit your company, suggests Grau: “First, you’ve likely cross-trained team members on some of your tasks before heading out, so there isn’t just one person in the company who knows what you know. Second, you can come back to work refreshed, more productive, and more creative, often with big ideas and renewed energy.”

If a nagging itch for productivity still gets in the way of vacation mode, try incorporating some engaging or otherwise stimulating activities into your itinerary. “Even if you fantasize about just spending a few days on the couch, or lying on a beach, consider coupling that with something active,” says Dr. Kurtz. “You might just get lost in the activity and feel especially far away from work in these kinds of moments.”

And it doesn’t have to be rock-climbing or sky-diving or something incredibly adventurous, either. “If you want to clean the house, refinish the bathroom, mow the lawn, or exercise so you are able to redirect your work energy, go ahead,” says McVeigh. “These active non-work-related activities allow you to get into your body and reset your mind to the present.”

To make transitioning back to work even easier, use your vacation as a practice ground for calming self-care activities that you can bring into your work life, too, whether that’s reading, journaling, or meditating, says McVeigh: “The culture and practice of rest needs to be a daily event so that a vacation isn’t the only time during which you’re getting perspective and peace.”

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