When your inbox is overflowing, the boss demands another rush project on top of the 12 you’ve already got going, you can’t think straight and just want to escape — it could very well be time for a vacation. In fact, it’s probably well past the time when you need to get away.
What are the benefits of a well-timed vacation? When do you know you really need to get away? How do you avoid the temptation to check in and do just a little work while you’re supposed to be relaxing? Most of all, what do you do upon your return so you don’t fall right back into the stress trap?
For some answers, we turned to Joffrey Suprina, dean of the College of Behavioral Science at Argosy University.
What Are the Benefits of a Well-Timed Vacation?
“I like the model that looks at perceived resources to perceived demand,” Suprina said. “When we start to see a higher stress load, we see more challenges. When we get into stress, it affects the brain and actually makes it difficult to think and be productive. When you start recognizing those challenges — when it’s hard for you to focus, when it’s hard for you to be productive — you’re probably dealing with stress. And it’s probably related to the fact that perceived demands exceed your perceived resources. Those resources may be energy or focus, a variety of different resources related to work.
“What I usually suggest is some of the stress-relieving kinds of activities that you can do. However, if you find that they’re very short-lived, you need a break. You need time to regroup, recharge and re-center.”
Rebuilding your inner reserves is among the benefits of going on a vacation, Suprina said, and it may take only a few days.
“It doesn’t need to be a week or a month,” he said. “Three days I think is ideal. For some individuals, that means they only have to take Friday off and have a longer weekend to be able to get away and recharge.
“The benefits are that you’re able to regroup and refortify some of those resources that were lacking, and help balance that scale between perceived resources and demand.”
How Do You Know When It’s Time to a Vacation?
“You’ll start seeing signs of stress: tension, feeling aches and pains, low energy, finding it difficult to stay focused and on task.
“You can try some stress-management techniques, but if they don’t work or don’t last, it’s definitely time to take a well-deserved break.”
How Do You Leave Work Behind?
Leaving work behind is tough for many people, mainly because they have two competing fears battling against them.
- One is the fear that they can’t do without me, so they’re going to be contacting me constantly to check in and I’m going to spend my whole vacation putting out fires.
- The opposite fear is they’re going to be completely successful without me. They don’t need me.
“We struggle between the two and that’s the challenge for a lot of people,” Suprina said. “I find the best strategy is to try to set some parameters.
“I encourage vacation buddies. Find someone you trust who can help cover when you are gone and you’ll reciprocate by doing the same when he or she is on vacation.
“Out of that, you’ll set parameters for them. It might be that you say you’ll check e-mail every morning first thing, say between 7 and 9 a.m. If there’s an emergency, have them e-mail you before that time so you can deal with it. After that time, do not check your e-mail. If something urgent comes up in the meantime, ask your vacation buddy to text you.
“Outline what is considered an emergency: ‘Here are the type of things that you can handle while I’m gone, here’s what can wait until my return.’ Parameters help you balance work and vacation time.”
What Do You Do When You’re Tempted to Check In?
“This helps both with stress in the workplace and stress any other time: the juggling analogy. Many people talk about juggling many different responsibilities.
“The secret of juggling is to keep your eye on the ball in your hands. The balls that are in the air you can do nothing about. They’re either going to fall in a place where you can get them, or not. There’s nothing you can do to change that. The only ball that you can influence at any time is the one in your hand. You need to focus and put all of your attention on the ball in your hand. Then you can toss it and grab the next one.
“This is one of the challenges. Many people try to keep their attention on all of the balls at once. That is stressful and crazy-making. When you’re on vacation, you need to have some time when that is the only ball in your hand and you can focus on relaxing, regrouping, re-centering. Trust your buddy to handle those other issues while you are gone.
“If there’s an emergency that needs your attention, certain people have your contact information and the parameters you’ve laid out and can handle things until your return.”
What If You Are More Stressed Out Upon Your Return?
One of the challenges for many people and why hard workers are afraid to take a vacation is they know that when they get back, they will have a mountain of work waiting for them. They may stress the whole time they’re on vacation about what they’re going to come back to.
Planning ahead and strategizing is the best thing to do.
- Work ahead as much as possible or try to catch up before you leave.
- Communicate with everyone that you’re going to be on vacation and what the parameters will be.
- Have a plan set up for how you will catch up when you get back to work.
“People may return and have 100 to 1,000 emails and they’re so overwhelmed by all of it that that they get paralyzed and can’t approach or deal with any of them,” Suprina said. “How do you eat an elephant? You do it one bite at a time. Take it slowly. Focus on one ball at a time.”
Incorporate Stress-Management Techniques Into Work
It can be as simple as breath.
“Breathing is helpful because in stress, we have a tendency to go toward fight, flight or freeze,” he said. “All of those impact breathing. When you go into fight-or-flight, you tend to breathe quickly and get into a very excited stage. When you go into freeze mode, which is often associated with fear, that’s when the breath will lock up, you’ll go into a gasp and then hold that breath.
“By breathing, you’re breaking both of those patterns and bringing it back into a more relaxed state. You’re encouraging that sort of parasympathetic nervous system where you go into a relaxation mode instead of an excited mode.
“Tension in shoulder muscles is common and can lead to a tension headache. That can be from a variety of things but certainly stress contributes. There are different kinds of exercises and things you can do. I like isotonic exercises, where you go with resistance. Move your chair so that it’s up against the wall and the wall is behind your head. Just press your head back into the wall. That will release the restriction in the front muscles and, in turn, free the tension in the back or anterior muscles.
“Where you experience physical pain is rarely the source of the problem. It’s usually the anterior muscles that are contracted that cause the tension.”
Other things that are helpful:
- Get up and take a short walk. Just walking around the office building a couple of times can do the trick. Getting outdoors and breathing, getting that general movement, can be very helpful in alleviating temporary stress.
- Use music as a tool. As we begin to associate different things, it will get ingrained in our system. If you have a very stressful job, just walking into the office can cause stress. You can help combat that by having things that are associated with relaxation. Music can help fortify you. For example, certain music can remind you of sitting on a beach and relaxing on your vacation. You’re able to start associating that music with relaxing on your vacation. That will help to relieve your stress and association with stress within the office.
When those techniques aren’t effective or don’t last as long, you are definitely at a time when you’re at such a high level of stress that you need more help. That’s when a vacation can be vital.
“Many of us feel we have to be productive 100 percent of the time,” Suprina said. “The flaw in that thinking is that it can actually impede your production because you will get so stressed and become paralyzed to the point that you can’t think effectively or process as well. That makes you less productive and efficient. The juggling — if you’re trying to pay attention to all of those balls in the air — will prevent you from giving your full attention to the ball in your hand. You’re going to end up dropping balls, dropping assignments.”
Bottom line: Your body will tell you when it’s time for a break. Plan a relaxing three-day getaway with your loved one or take a short trip with friends. Incorporate some of the tips and strategies outlined here so that you return refreshed, recharged and re-centered.