Time off doesn’t always go as planned. So, what can you do when you come back to work more exhausted than when you left — especially when everyone assumes you’re well rested and raring to go but you feel just as depleted (or more) than before? The author recommends five strategies: 1) Take inventory of your health and energy; 2) Ease back into work; 3) Reflect on the positives; reframe and learn from the negatives; 4) Use the fresh start effect to set up new routines; and 5) Clarify what you need for future time off.
Vacations are meant to be rejuvenating. Time off can not only help you restore your mind, body, and soul, it also has a positive impact on your work life: One study found that employees who take 11 or more vacation days are more likely to receive a raise or bonus.
However, not all vacations are as restorative or energizing as we hope they’ll be. Chronic work stress can interfere with our plans. The phenomenon of getting sick as soon as you start to relax even has a name: leisure sickness.
Even when pacing yourself, your time off doesn’t always go as planned. The vacation itself can be a source of stress for a variety of reasons, from strained relationships, pre-vacation stress of getting everything done, unexpected travel delays, or the weight of impending deadlines and workload when you return.
So, what can you do when you come back to work more exhausted than when you left — especially when everyone assumes you’re well rested and raring to go but you feel just as depleted (or more) than before? Here are five steps you can take to refresh on your return.
1. Take inventory of your health and energy.
Unless you’ve been on a rejuvenating health retreat, it’s possible that you’ve veered away from your healthy routines, maybe skipping out on physical activity or finding yourself caught up in a full schedule and indulging a bit too much.
On your return, assess and acknowledge your energy levels, taking inventory of how you’re feeling to determine what you need. Research has found that optimizing your energy along the following domains can help boost wellbeing and performance: sleep, movement, connection, time outdoors, relaxation and meaningful engagement.
Start by rating yourself on a scale of 1-10 in terms of your current energy levels in each of the above areas. Then identify where you would like to be in each domain and one action you can take to reinforce or improve each of these elements of your wellbeing. Reassess daily for a week, tracking how your energy shifts as you re-engage in healthier habits.
2. Ease back into work.
Coming back from a vacation can be a challenging experience when you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed about catching up with emails and conversations that were piling up while you were supposed to be relaxing and enjoying time off.
Resist the temptation to dive into work headfirst by building in a day of transition and recovery before returning to normal. You might even consider drafting an auto-response or extending your OOO for an extra day or two.
Before you enter into a full day’s work, set some guard rails for your time so that you can get off to a good start. Begin with essential and time-sensitive tasks and give yourself a buffer to catch up on emails and updates that can come later. Block time out on your calendar also for activities that energize you.
3. Reflect on the positives; reframe, and learn from the negatives.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed or disappointed by things that may not have gone as well as you had hoped — but there are likely some positive memories to hold onto. Take some time to reflect and savor those experiences, as well as lessons and insights gained. Capture them on paper, so you can share them with your team members, and reinforce the benefits of your time away. If the trip left you feeling in a rut, maybe you can find solace in the fact that you’re home again getting back to normal.
4. Use the fresh start effect to set new habits and routines.
The fresh start effect is the phenomenon of increased success in behavioral change associated with new beginnings, such as birthdays, the new year, and other milestones. You can harness this effect by using your return to work as an opportunity to reset.
Coming back from a vacation is a good time to establish new practices that further enhance your energy and productivity, like exercising, shutting off notifications, blocking distractions, or writing in a journal each night. Seek out habits and routines that feel replenishing in your day-to-day life. You can leverage practices such as timeboxing to optimize your energy for the things that matter to you.
It can be tempting to try to overcompensate but don’t let remorse drive your actions. Rather think about the routines that will work within the context of your daily life so that your habits can be sustainable. Determine what you need to do today to get back on track, leave remorse out of the equation and do what you need to create forward momentum.
5. Clarify what you need for future time off.
Use this experience as a learning opportunity to set the ground for a more replenishing vacation in the future. Decide how much structure was energizing versus draining on your energy. Who do you want to spend time with and how far do you want to travel? How much communication with your team do you need for your own wellbeing and connection needs?
Even a good vacation can sometimes be exhausting. If you don’t properly manage your time and energy when returning, your exhaustion can have a cumulative impact on your wellbeing, work, relationships, and performance. If you didn’t get what you needed from this vacation, use it as motivation to ensure that you build sustainable, energy-preserving practices into your daily life.