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Why Going Back to Work after Vacation is SO Hard

One of the toughest parts of taking a vacation as an adult is the eventual return to ordinary life. While, for many of us, it takes a good 3 to 5 days to settle in and begin to experience the relaxation that a good vacation can offer, it’s this same shift that makes coming home so hard. 

This article is split into three sections:

After reading this article, you’ll have a better understanding of the psychology of work and how the transition between time off and time on-the-job is so challenging for our brains. Additionally, you’ll have strategies to plan ahead for a smooth transition and a toolbox of ideas you can draw on when post-vacation blues fog your ability to be your badass professional self.

An empty office with laptops open.

Why Going to Work After Vacation is so Hard

Work in the 2020s is fast-paced and demanding.

Whether we work in a customer-facing job or with screens, in brick-and-mortar commercial buildings or from the comfort of a home office, all work requires that our brains operate in specific ways.

Ideally, our work habits overlap with strategies to induce a flow state – in flow, our brain enjoys being productive so much that it loses track of time, but that’s not a reality for most of us. 1 For most of us, showing up and performing well at our job requires taxing our social skills, masking, code switching 2, and adapting the language we speak to be more palatable to a professional environment. All of these things are extra tasks that our brains have to juggle while we are attending to our actual work tasks. That’s exhausting!

When we vacation take a vacation, our brain does too. Taking a break from professional speak, workplace dynamics, and social navigation lets us be in a different way. As we relax and allow ourselves to inhabit our vacation days with more mindfulness, embodied experience, and authentic experience, it’s no wonder that our brains can get a little bit disorganized, depressed, or reluctant when it comes time to return to work.

Vacation changes how we use our brains, but we don’t have to leave those changes at our destination. Here’s how:

True vacations, almost by definition, offer us experiences for mindfulness, embodied experience, and authentic experience – these are all needs that everyone experiences but which are specifically devalued in most workplaces.

Keep reading to learn more about each, and some strategies to integrate them into your workday so that going back to work after vacation isn’t quite so rough:

Mindfulness

When we’re on vacation, especially the kind of vacation that leaves us spacious hours to spend stretched out in the sun, floating in open water, or snuggling next to a fire, we have the opportunity to experience mindfulness in a way that is missing from an average weekday.

Commuting, clocking in, meetings, scheduling, and performing our jobs often leave little room for mindfulness.

Mindfulness is taking the time to grow awareness and notice the sensations around us. Mindfulness means smelling a scent and, rather than letting it pass through our minds without note, really smelling it. This means noticing our awareness of the smell and allowing our attention to be present to it. Mindfulness can be practiced through all of our senses, including sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste.

To integrate mindfulness into your workday, you don’t have to fantasize about moments on the beach. Instead, be present to the sensory experiences you can find in your own workplace: the smell of coffee brewing, the fog of an early morning commute swirling fog of an early morning commute, or the sound of rain pattering on the window pane.

Making sure that mindfulness is something that you get to enjoy year-round – not just during your week off on vacation – can help ease the transition between vacation and going back to work.

Embodied Experience

With few exceptions, work in the modern world asks us to be productive humans but ignores the needs and desires of human bodies.

For example, research has clearly demonstrated over a number of decades 3 that being sedentary harms the body and, in fact, makes us less productive. Despite this, nearly all jobs include the expectation to sit or stand with very little movement.

Vacation offers our body a different experience: on vacation, we tend to wake up when our body naturally wants to wake, move our body in ways that feel good when it feels good, and rest when we’re tired. In short, when we are on vacation we attune to our bodies in a very different way than we are allowed to during a workday. This deep relaxation might be why a small study of dental students in 1998 showed that human bodies heal significantly faster on vacation than during high stress periods. 4

To ease the transition back to work after vacation, explore ways to move more intuitively in your work week. For lucky few, this might mean that a treadmill desk or walking meetings might be possible. For most of us, though, finding a balance between listening to our body and keeping our job is a little trickier! In these cases, finding opportunities to take short breaks, use a bathroom farther away from our desks, or unplugging from our remote work in a home office for just a few minutes to stand on an outdoor porch can help us experience more embodiment in our work day. 

Authentic Experience  

Everyone masks, code-switches, or acts in unnatural ways to accommodate social norms. Although those of us with marginalized identities have to do more pretending than others, everyone knows the feeling of getting home from work, putting on a pair of sweatpants, and taking what feels like the first deep breath of the day.

Masking, is when we speak, behave, and engage with other people in a way that isn’t how we would act if we were totally true to our preferred way of moving in the world. 5 Masking can look like naturally introverted people acting extroverted during work hours (because American work culture rewards extroversion). Masking may also look like trading your natural accent or language patterns for speech patterns more valued in the workplace. In other words, the old advice to “fake it till you make it” is really just advice to mask – and it’s one of the reasons that returning to work after vacation is such a challenge.

To minimize the challenge of returning to work after vacation, experiment with ways to mask less at work. Perhaps, it’s cultivating an environment in your own office that celebrates neuro-diversity, cultural differences, and unique personalities. Alternately, it may be that it would be easier to go back to work after vacation if you worked at a company that already values fostering a workplace where less masking is necessary to thrive. With less pressure at work to be someone who you’re not, returning to work after vacation might be less anxiety provoking.

💡 HINT: Vacations, and what our brain says to us about returning to work can be like an internal career coach. Sometime the best career advice comes from our hearts and emotions. When overwhelming dread consistently marks the end of vacations, it’s a clue that our work life balance is off and it might be time to start the search for a new position. 

How to Prepare for Vacation to make your Return to Work Easier

Preventing icky feelings on your return to work is easier than curing them once they settle in. If you experience feelings of hopelessness or anxiety as you think about returning to work after traveling, try to spend less time focusing on the anticipation of dread and more on planning how to leave well, and be fully present on your days off (Psst, this last tip is a true lifehack).

Here are some tips that work well for easing a transition between work and vacation in advance:

1. Don’t schedule meetings immediately after the return

After you return from vacation, your coworkers, supervisors, and subordinates will likely bring urgent needs to you. If possible, leave a little space to attend to what feels urgent to you before you take on the problems of your colleagues.

2. Pad your autoresponder message with an extra day

I recommend adding a buffer day to your autoresponder. If, for example, you’ll be back to work on August 10, try setting your autoresponder to tell people that you will “be back in the office and responding to emails beginning August 11.” Giving yourself an extra day can help your first day back feel less overwhelming, sinse people will not be expecting an immediate response.

3. Plan for one at-home day before returning to work after vacation

We all want to maximize our vacation time. It can be tempting to fly home Sunday afternoon and slouch into work on Monday morning. However, you’ll hit the ground as a more effective, productive, and promotable employee if you give yourself a buffer day. For example, flying home on Saturday and having Sunday to recover before work on Monday will have you rolling into the office in much better shape. With an earlier flight, you can adapt to unexpected flight delays or cancellations and have a day to rest, catch up on household chores, and mentally prepare for a return to work.

4. Set clear Boundaries and Expectations

An email autoresponder can be an almost magic tool. Without requiring any engagement from you while you are off enjoying a long holiday, an autoresponder lets colleagues, clients, and partners know why you won’t be answering their emails immediately and when they can expect a response.

5. Have a Strategy to Handle Dread of Vacation-Ending

If dread feels like it is overwhelmingly encroaching on the final days of your vacation- use a trick from grief counselors 6 and schedule a time in your day to feel and process that dread.

It may seem silly to throw away precious moments of vacation dwelling on the dread of going back to work, but- like grief -giving dread a measured space to inhabit can help it feel less overwhelming. Being able to notice thoughts of dread and say “no, not right now, later, after I brush my teeth tonight and before I get in bed. Then I can feel the dread” both honors our emotions and helps set a containing boundary around unhelpful ruminating. 

Woman at a desk in an office works on a computer.

Ways to Handle Going Back to Work after Vacation

Be intentional about the kind of vacation you choose

For shorter vacations, it can be helpful to maintain routines, keep work-related habits, and maintain some kind of productivity. This can help keep our minds ready to jump back into work on return. However, we all deserve a break – a real break – sometimes. And that means completely tuning out. 

For longer vacations, while it can take some time to actually relax on vacation, letting ourselves relax our workout routines, self-care habits, and other rigid daily structures can help us relax and actually reduce our risk for burnout 7.

Focusing on lower stress family vacations, traveling during less-popular travel holidays like halloween, and considering the pros and cons of an all-inclusive resort vacation are all ways you can mindfully be more aware of the type of vacation you’ll encounter.

Use Gmail “Snooze” plus a Template Message to buy some time

If you return to an inbox bursting at the seams despite your autoresponder, it might be helpful to buy yourself some time. Here’s how I quickly triage a ton of emails. I open each email, one by one, and roll through this process. 

  1. I scan the email.
  2. If I can answer the email in 90 seconds or less, I write a quick response and then archive the email.
  3. If the message will take a more thoughtful reply, I cut and paste the response: “I received your email and I have just returned from vacation, I will follow up as soon as possible, you can expect to hear from you on this matter in 2 to 3 days.”
  4. After sending a response that lets the recipient know I’m on the ball, I then “snooze” the original email. Non urgent issues are snoozed until 9am on my 3rd day back to work, moderately urgent emails are snoozed until 9am on my second day back to work, and time-sensitive emails are snoozed to return to my inbox at 1pm on my first day back. 

Having a system for handling my inbox on return helps me feel more confident as I return to work after I get back from vacation. 

Take care of your body

After vacation, if we come back to a backlog of work, it can be incredibly tempting to spend the first 3 to 5 days after a vacation in a hellscape of professional catch-up.

Instead, set expectations with your employer that you’re still a human-sized human and will only be able to do a human-sized amount of work during your first week back. Take time to hang on to the mindfulness, embodiment, and authentic experience you had on vacation. Translate these into caring for yourself well during your first week back to work – take your lunch, go outside, and move your body as much as feels comfortable.

Final thoughts on returning to work after vacation

The return to work after a vacation can be a brutal transition. For many people, it can elicit feelings of depression, dread, anxiety or just sadness. These can all be clues that it might be time to seek a job that’s more fulfilling, but it’s also a really normal response to moving between a brief season of rest into a season of productivity. By harnessing the power of relaxation to supercharge our work, and letting supercharged seasons of work fund seasons of deep rest, we can create a lifecycle in which returning to work after vacation doesn’t have to be a dreadful experience.

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Sources

  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life. United States: Basic Books. []
  2. Hall, J. C., Everett, J. E., & Hamilton-Mason, J. (2012). Black women talk about workplace stress and how they copeJournal of black studies43(2), 207-226. []
  3. Wilmot, E. G., Edwardson, C. L., Achana, F. A., Davies, M. J., Gorely, T., Gray, L. J., … & Biddle, S. J. (2012). Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysisDiabetologia55(11), 2895-2905. []
  4. cited in Suinn, R. M. (2001). The terrible twos—anger and anxiety: Hazardous to your health. American Psychologist56(1), 27. []
  5. Miller, D., Rees, J., & Pearson, A. (2021). “Masking is life”: Experiences of masking in autistic and nonautistic adults. Autism in Adulthood3(4), 330-338. []
  6. Hopfgarten, C. (2021). Finding Your Way Through Loss & Grief: A Therapist’s Guide to Working Through Any Grieving Process. United Kingdom: Welbeck Publishing Group Limited. Link to referenced paragraph.  []
  7. Etzion, D. (2003). Annual vacation: Duration of relief from job stressors and burnoutAnxiety, Stress, and Coping16(2), 213-226.  []