Although “desserts” is “stressed” spelt backwards, getting out of the office for a few days and unplugging is actually a healthier way to deal with workplace tension.

Your brain when you put a vacation on the calendar: I cannot wait to take some time away from work to spend with loved ones and relax. It can’t come fast enough!

Your brain one week before: Where did the time go? Why did I even plan this vacation? Preparing to spend a whole week away from the office is more stressful than not taking time off at all. I’m pretty sure everything will fall apart without me!

Your brain on vacation: This is fun. I’m glad I got away. (Checks phone for emails.) No, no! Why are you emailing me? Leave me alone!

Your brain the night before you return to work: Tomorrow is going to be horrible. (Sigh of dread.)

Sound familiar? Stop the madness and learn how to manage your stress and your time away so you can feel like you are on vacation all year long.

According to research by Oxford Economics, approximately 400 million days of paid vacation time goes unused by Americans each year. A NPR poll that was released in July 2016 reported that roughly half of Americans who estimate working 50 or more hours per week say they don’t take all or most of their paid-time off. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who partnered with NPR for this poll, found that of the people who do take vacation, 30 percent still do a “significant amount of work while on vacation.”

While many countries in Europe and Asia give almost a month in government-mandated vacation, the United States does not. However, according to The Center for Economic and Policy research, 77 percent of privately owned companies do give employees guaranteed vacation days. So why aren’t people taking them?  

Be Your Best, Not Stressed

You can come up with many excuses not to take a vacation, but what if taking vacation could actually make you a healthier person?

When you are stressed, a hormone in the body called cortisol is released. Cortisol is the hormone that induces the fight-or-flight reaction in cave people. Now, this hormone is released when we get overloaded with projects, see our inbox stacking up, or feel pressured to make a quick decision at work. Research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology found that stress can even alter your immune system and is even linked to many serious illnesses.

These are just some of the physical and emotional health benefits of vacationing regularly. Here’s how to pull off a stellar vacation without breaking a sweat. (You will be sweating if you decide to go to the beach, but that’s besides the point.)  

BEFORE YOU GO

Plan Ahead

The more time in advance you can give yourself and your co-workers, the better. Having it on the schedule months in advance, gives you and the people around you time to mentally prepare to take on a few extra tasks while you are away. And remember to return the favor when they take time off. Taking a deep breath that week before, knowing that you may have to put in a few extra hours so that you can enjoy yourself and eliminate stress future stress will be well worth it.

The week before you leave, go on a meeting diet. Do not plan or attend meetings unless they are absolutely necessary so that you can block your time off to buckle down and tie up loose ends.

Brag About It

It can be awkward to mention your upcoming vacation, especially when you face that coworker who rolls their eyes and says with coffee breath, “Must be nice,” but doing so can actually save you from panicked emails and text messages while you’re away. As you are telling people, it may seem natural to say something to the affect of, “Let me know if you need anything though.” This is a big no no! That sets the expectation that you will be available to do work. Repeat after me, your job while you’re on vacation is to enjoy, appreciate, and relax.

Have An Understudy

Every great Broadway lead has someone to fill in if they get sick or sprain an ankle. This person knows the role enough to put on a good show for the audience at a moment’s notice. You most likely have someone like this at your office, so let them help you out. Put their contact information in your away messages and make sure that you meet with that person to fill them in on any issues or standard questions that may take place in your absence, so they won’t need to turn to you to solve them. Who knows, you might have discovered a new star at the office!

Tidy Up

Before leaving the office, the last thing you should do is assess your desk. If there are dishes, put them in the dishwasher. If there is tupperware spread across your desk with last week’s lunch, take it home. Tidy up the slew of papers that you have and even wipe down your phone, keyboard, and desk. Do I sound like your mother? Good, I hear mother knows best. Coming back to a neat space will make a not-so-enjoyable task, much easier on your psyche.  

WHILE YOU’RE AWAY

Email Hacks

According to a 2,000-person poll done by Ipsos Public Affairs, over 40 percent of working adults report feeling obligated to check their email while they are vacationing.

If unplugging completely is not an option for you, limit checking your email to a 30-minute block at the start of the day or end of the day. Mass delete emails that are irrelevant, forward or send a quick reply to those that require it immediately, and put the rest into a folder to handle when you return. Do not reply to emails that do not absolutely warrant it as that will setup the expectation that you are available to work, and you’re not, relaxing is your full-time job this week.

Be Smart (and a little sneaky) with your Out-of-Office Messages

Out-of-office messages were designed to suppress that feeling of needing to immediately respond, so let them do their job (since, again, yours is to relax). The art of the out-of -office is all about how you structure it.

I like to state that I’m out of the office until X date and that I will return messages as promptly as possible after that time,” says Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a writer for the Harvard Business Review. “That sets the expectation that I won’t reply while on vacation and also that it may take a few days after I return to the office to reply. Additionally, if you start your out-of-office auto-response a day before you actually leave, it’ll be easier to extract yourself from the office on time, as you’ll be able to focus on what’s most essential during your last day in the office.”

All Hail the Buffer Day

I don’t know about you, but I am in the habit of booking flights that get in late at night and thinking that I will be fine coming into work the next day. Don’t do this. Give yourself a day to get settled back into your life. Notice how I said life and not work. Use the day to sleep in a little, grocery shop, unpack, do laundry, so that you can get back to work without thinking of all the errands you have to run when you get out.

WHEN YOU’RE BACK

Dig Out

As you are checking your email and voicemail, make a list (in fun colors to keep that happy vacation vibe) before responding to anything. That way you can prioritize and filter through the big picture of what needs to be done, rather than responding as you go. Then catch up with your co-workers in person to see if some of it was already handled. Some emails may not even require your response.

If you have a customer facing job, give yourself one extra day of catch up by leaving your out-of-office message up for one extra day. If you are really coming back on a Monday, draft your away message saying you will return on Tuesday. Then you won’t feel rushed to respond without gathering the proper information that you need. If you get caught up and are ready to start responding later that afternoon, then you can always take it off early.

Plan Something Fun!

You might be thinking, Fun? I just went on vacation. Tell that voice to pipe down! Believe it or not, you can and should have fun during the work week as well. To ease yourself back into everyday life, plan a few coffee date with a friend, a happy hour with coworkers, or a romantic dinner with your spouse. Put it on your calendar to ensure that you take the time and don’t bury yourself in work your first week back.

Let your next vacation be a turning point in your life, where you handle and relieve stress for good and not just for a week or two out of the year.

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