After a vacation, it can be tempting to double down on work in an attempt to make up for “lost” time, or to try to hurry through the time it takes to get back up to speed. Other times, the urge to overwork stems from a well-meaning effort to relieve team members of the extra work they were covering for you, or a desire to demonstrate that even though you were away, your commitment remains high and you’re still valuable to the organization. Whatever the motivation behind post-vacation overwork, it can leave you boomeranging from one extreme to the other, which increases stress and actually undermines your efforts to catch up. So how can you retain all the benefits of work recovery and resist jumping right back into the grind? The authors offer several strategies.
As summer winds down and many of our coaching clients and research participants are returning from vacation, we’re seeing increased levels of return-to-work anxiety. As one client, “Leslie,” put it:
Coming back from vacation almost makes [it] seem not worth it. For me, it’s like psychologically accelerating from a cruising pace of 30 mph to a speed of 80 so I can get through my inbox, catch up on all the meetings I missed, and reconnect with my neglected clients. And that’s on top of the guilt I’ve been feeling about overburdening my team while they’ve been covering for me.
It’s easy to respond to these intense feelings like Leslie did, by throwing yourself into overworking, overcompensating, and overachieving the minute you disable your out of office responder — especially in work cultures that don’t exactly encourage time off in the first place.
However, there’s a healthier, more balanced approach that can help you ease back into your routine without losing all the stress-reducing and performance-enhancing benefits of unplugging from work.
Time Off Is Essential
First, let’s be clear that taking periodic breaks in order to reset and recover from work stress (what researchers refer to as work recovery) isn’t a “nice to have” — it’s essential for sustained performance and growth. Just as athletes engage in regular periods of rest and recovery in order to perform at their best and avoid injury, workers need periods of time away from their jobs to recuperate from the strain of work and replenish their physical and mental energy.
Research shows that those who don’t take the opportunity to rest, recharge, and recover are at higher risk of exhaustion, low motivation, poor performance, and burnout, while those who engage in regular periods of work recovery enjoy better sleep, higher job satisfaction, more engagement, and higher job performance. Human bodies and brains simply aren’t built to endure chronic stress, and there’s plenty of evidence showing how disconnecting from the strains and demands of work not only lowers stress, but increases productivity and boosts creativity. Even micro-breaks taken throughout the workday, such as stretching, doing some deep breathing exercises, or stepping outside for some fresh air, can halt the stress cycle and return you to baseline.
Despite the clear benefits of time away, however, nearly half of American workers don’t take all the paid time off their employer offers. Chief among their reasons are worries that they’ll fall behind, or that time off will hurt their chances for advancement or even increase their risk of losing their job, as well as guilt over coworkers having to take on additional work.
These are sentiments we hear often, including from our senior executive clients, who frequently express a fear of losing momentum if they step away. Part of our role as executive coaches is empowering clients to invest in themselves and their performance with the practice of regular work recovery.
Resisting the Urge to Overwork After Time Off
Post-vacation, it can be tempting to double down on work in an attempt to make up for “lost” time, or to try to hurry through the time it takes to get back up to speed. Other times, the urge to overwork stems from a well-meaning effort to relieve team members of the extra work they were covering for you, or a desire to demonstrate that even though you were away, your commitment remains high and you’re still valuable to the organization.
Whatever the motivation behind post-vacation overwork, it can leave you boomeranging from one extreme to the other, which increases stress and actually undermines your efforts to catch up. So how can you retain all the benefits of work recovery and resist jumping right back into the grind? Here are some strategies that have worked for our research participants and clients:
Shift to a performance mindset.
High performance and sufficient recovery were never meant to function separately, yet in the corporate world, performance tends to be overemphasized while recovery is overlooked. Rather than treating time away as a last resort only after you’re depleted and unproductive, or as a special reward when your to-do list is finally done, take a cue from top athletes and include work recovery as an essential component of a high-performance strategy. Work recovery works best when it’s practiced regularly and consistently.
Prevent or ease “reentry shock.”
“Reentry shock” refers to the discombobulation you feel when you transition from a place of calm and equilibrium to one that pulls you into the frazzle and fray. You can prevent this by using buffers. Schedule a free day between your return from vacation and your return to work so you can mentally and physically prepare for the change in environment. Keep your calendar light just after your return, which will give you a chance to reacclimate and avoid overwork. For example, one of our clients has a two-day “no meetings” buffer after his return.
Bring some vacation magic home with you.
What exactly was it during your period of recovery that helped you decompress and feel more like yourself? Was it exercise? Reconnecting with loved ones? An artistic pursuit or hobby that’s neglected during the work week? Simply enjoying some unscheduled leisure time? As much as possible, build these activities and conditions into your normal weekly routine. Remember, even small doses of downtime make a difference.
Before saying yes to new requests when you return to work, consider what’s getting in your way of saying no.
Are you concerned about not being recognized, rewarded, or promoted? If so, stop, breathe, and check your assumptions. It may be possible to get the recognition and rewards you’re looking for without overcommitting yourself and sacrificing your health and well-being. If you can’t identify the problem areas — or if you need help figuring out what to do about them — consider working with a coach.
Review, communicate, and maintain your boundaries.
Returning from a recovery period is a great time to review and refresh your work boundaries. Let everyone know when you will and will not be available for work, and if work demands begin to creep past your role or your comfort level, speak with leadership about shifting responsibilities, or see if you can delegate. Boundaries should help define others’ expectations of your role, and they should protect your downtime and allow you to mentally detach from work.
Leave a toxic work environment that discourages time away or that rewards employees for excessive hours and self-sacrifice.
This kind of unhealthy work environment will leave you ripe for exhaustion and burnout. If you can’t leave right away, start creating an exit strategy.
Preventing the Urge to Overwork Before Time Off
Next time you’re planning to take time off, try in advance to make things easier for future you. Weeks before you leave, arrange for who’s covering your responsibilities during your absence, and include their contact information in your out-of-office message. Set clear expectations for when/if you should be contacted during vacation. Structure a reentry routine ahead of time so you can plug into an existing process and more easily get back into work mode. Finally, consider conducting a premortem before finalizing your plans. What specific challenges or failures might you expect or imagine? What were their main causes? What was not yet accounted for? And ultimately, what additional preventive steps can you take now? This simple but powerful process helps further refine your pre–time off planning, which can prevent most reentry problems.
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Periodic time away from work is one of the best ways to ensure that you’ll be able to sustain your energy and productivity. With some planning before your time away and some sensible guardrails after your return, you can bring all the stress-lowering benefits of work recovery back with you.