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Post-Vacation Anxiety Is a Real Thing—Here’s How to Prevent It

You’re away for the week, soaking up some sun in Florida. Or, hiking in the Rockies. Or, exploring the streets of Rome. Everything’s going great, until the last day of vacation rolls around and you remember what awaits you.

Work.

Everyone, at some point or another, has felt that pit in their stomach as they realized their vacation fun was coming to an end—and that they’d have to return to the office. Most of the time this feeling is normal.

But when is it not? When is this anxiety a sign that something’s wrong or needs to change in your career?

I spoke with Dr. David Ballard, Director of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, who’s studied this exact phenomenon. In the organization’s 2018 Work and Well-Being Survey, Ballard and his team tapped into how US workers approach vacation: “We wanted to look at the psychological aspects of it—how it relates to job stress, and what differences we see when people come back from vacation and how long they last.”

What he found, as you may know from reading other Muse articles, is that a majority of people do benefit from time off. When they return they’re less stressed, they feel more motivated, and their work quality and productivity is better.

“But on the downside, for almost two-thirds of US workers, those positive effects went away within a few days of coming back to work,” he adds.

The survey highlights even more: “21% said they feel tense or stressed out while on vacation…and 42% reported that they dread returning to work.”

This is obviously a problem. What’s the point of a vacation when, despite the upsides, we’re still likely to be stressed during it and even more likely to lose all that we’ve gained once it’s over? And, how can we use this information to improve how we take time off?

Ballard says:

Research shows that when people come back to work and there’s a mountain of work waiting for them…then those gains they made dissipate even faster…if you start worrying about that as your vacation wraps up, it’s eating into the recovery experience…it’s pulling you back into work when you’re supposed to be still destressing and recovering.

So, what can you do with this knowledge? Ballard says it comes down to these three crucial steps:

  1. Planning ahead
  2. Getting stress recovery experiences while on vacation
  3. Easing back into work

Let’s dive into what each one of those steps means.

Planning Ahead

You need to “really [have] a concrete plan for what needs to be covered while you’re out—who’s going to pick up the extra work, what tasks need to be covered versus what can wait, making sure your team has clear expectations about your availability,” he says. (This checklist can be helpful in tracking all you have to get done before you go.)

This preparation alone immediately gets rid of the vacation guilt you might have. The more prep you give your team, the easier you can relax knowing nothing will go to hell while you’re out. It also ensures you come back with a to-do list that feels more manageable (and less stressful to think about on vacation).

Getting Stress Recovery Experiences While On Vacation

Then, when you’re actually away, unplug:

“We know from the research that to recover from stress, to really recharge…you need time periods when you’re not working, but also when you’re not thinking about work,” states Ballard.

Engage in some form of relaxation (reading a good book or meditating, for example) as well as something stimulating but not work-related (like hiking or exploring a new city) —both are key for stress recovery.

“Many of us have the experience in which you come back from a really busy vacation where you planned lots of activities and you feel like you need a vacation from your vacation. So [make] sure you’re sleeping enough and taking care of yourself, all of the things we know we need to do but most of us are not great at,” he adds.

Easing Back Into Work

When you return, don’t just leap back into the grind. The reality is that you’re not going to be your most productive self right away—and trying to will only decrease the effects of your relaxing trip. Start off with small tasks, like checking email or completing easy wins, and take plenty of breaks, including lunch (and read this article and this one).

One more thing worth mentioning is that vacations can only do so much for us. Sure, they’re great, but if you expect them to solve all your work-related problems—If I just go away for a week I’ll come back and everything will be fine—you’re going to be disappointed.

“It’s also important to find times during your normal work week or normal work day to engage in stress recovery behaviors…it’s unrealistic to expect that if you’re taking a vacation every six months that can tide you over very well,” states Ballard. So, it’s up to you to find ways to rest and recharge on a regular basis so that you don’t rely on vacations alone.

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