If you’ve actually decided to take a vacation this year, good for you. Most employees only use about half of their vacation time each year, though taking vacation is well known for helping employees remain more productive when they are on the job. It might’ve been tough for you to pull the trigger on that week-long break from the office, and you might be wondering if it’s going to be worth it. There’s a lot to do before and after a vacation that can make the break itself seem far less appealing.
If you’re at risk for certain diseases or health issues, taking vacation might be the best decision you can make. According to findings from the Framingham Heart Study, taking a vacation can lead to reduced symptoms of heart disease. During the study, NPR reported, more than 12,000 men at risk for heart disease were followed over nine years to see what lifestyle behaviors could help decrease signs of the illness. “The more frequent the vacations, the longer the men lived,” Karen Matthews of the University of Pittsburgh’s Mind-Body Center told the publication. In fact, dying from heart disease specifically decreased by 32%.
There are additional studies that show people who take vacations have a better outlook on life, decreased depression, and other benefits. But unfortunately, the noticeable benefits of vacation like reduced stress often fade very quickly — even a day or two after returning to the daily grind, researcher Jessica de Bloom told NPR. Still, the quick return to normalcy doesn’t outweigh the benefits people actually had on vacation. “People felt healthier during vacation. They had a better mood,” de Bloom said. “They were less tense. And they had a higher level of energy, and they were more satisfied with their life.”
Have we convinced you that you’re doing the right thing by swapping your office desk for a beach umbrella? If you’re still unsure, there are some key things you can do before, during, and after vacation to make sure you reap all the possible benefits. With any luck (and a little planning) you can also make sure it’s as stress-free as possible, so your vacation is actually a break.
The week or so leading up to significant time off of work can be crazy. You have phone calls to make, clients to meet with, and that pesky automated email responder to set up properly. Before any of this, though, make sure you’ve thought about the timing of your days off. “When you’re thinking about taking a vacation, consider timing,” Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author, told Forbes. “You won’t want to leave in the middle of project or before a big launch.”
Another thing to consider is your boss’ preferences about taking vacation. Some supervisors prefer you leave the office around the same days they do, while others want you to be on call in their stead at take off when they’re back in the office. Know what works best at your company, and do your best to plan accordingly.
Also, tell people exactly when you’ll be out, and inform clients who your second-in-command will be while you’re out. That way, they’ll hopefully reach out to others instead of blowing up your phone with simple problems that anyone else can help with. Remind your boss from time to time when you’ll be gone, so they’re not surprised. In the same vein, establish ground rules for communication. Be vague about when you’ll check emails (Taylor suggests saying you’ll check them from “time to time) so that you’re not stuck with a secondary agenda while on vacation.
Finally, get organized. Clean the surface of your desk, tidy up your inbox, and clear out your voicemails. That way, you start with a clean slate when you get back. Harvard Business Review authors suggest focusing only on the most critical activities in the days leading up to your break. That way, you don’t leave teammates in the lurch but also don’t get caught up in petty tasks that will only lead to stress and little productivity.
During the trip
One quick word of caution about vacations: The idea they can make you sick is actually scientifically sound. This is especially true if you work in a high-stress job and attempt to stop everything cold turkey as soon as your feet are in flip flops. Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist in the Netherlands, coined the term “leisure sickness” to explain the phenomenon. When people in stressful positions at work have off on weekends, this can sometimes present itself as a headache or migraine. When people go on a full-fledged vacation, people can start having cold or flu-like symptoms.
“Your immune system is stimulated by the pressure, so when you have deadlines your body knows you can’t get ill. When you take a break your immune system just thinks – no more pressure. I can get sick now,” explained Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Lancaster. Neurologist Giles Elrington advises sticking to a normal pattern of behavior, like waking up at the same time you normally would, to cut back on headaches and other issues. The Harvard Business Review suggests maintaining a similar level of mental and physical activity for the first few days of vacation, then easing into full relaxation.
But do actually make sure you have enough time to truly relax. Taking that time will prove to make you more productive upon your return, especially if you’re able to unplug and set healthy email-checking boundaries, Mary Hladio, a workplace expert and president of Ember Carriers leadership group, told Forbes. “By taking time away from work to unplug and reconnect with other people and things in your life that also make you happy, you actually come back to the workplace recharged and more productive than if you had stayed in the office for the same time period,” Hladio said. “Sometimes when we are away from the day to day we actually find solutions to problems or think of innovative ways for higher performance.”
After your break
Your first day or two back on the job, and the tasks you’ll have, likely depends on what type of role you have in the office. Regardless, try to ease back into those assignments. Taylor told Forbes to hold off on scheduling meetings until after the first day or two. You won’t be trying to focus on a meeting with a client while also thinking about the pile of unreturned messages and the mountains of emails waiting back in your office.
While you’re waiting on meetings, though, don’t wait to get caught up with people in your office. Be proactive about getting the information you need to contribute again, Taylor said. “Make sure you’re filled in on all the information and details of meetings and reports you missed,” she advised. “Go to lunch with colleagues so they can bring you up to speed.”
If you’re in management or have influence over team projects, you also have a unique opportunity to reestablish goals for the team or company at large, said Peter Bregman, CEO of leadership consultant firm Bregman Partners. “Don’t squander this opportunity by trying to efficiently wrangle your own inbox and to-do list,” Bregman wrote. “You’ve gotten some space from the day to day. People haven’t heard from you in a while. Maybe they’ve been on vacation too. They’re waiting. They’re more influenceable than usual.”
If you’re in a position to do so, outline three to five of your major goals, Bregman advised, and share those with your team. Then use those goals to prioritize which items you catch up on first. That outlook will help you dig through what’s actually important, and you’ll have the chance to move the company forward. The drinks with little umbrellas might become a distant memory, but you’ll be better equipped because of that break.
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS