The Vacation Backlash

Maybe I need a better name for it, but I’m describing the pain that happens when you’re getting ready for vacation and returning from one. I bet most of you have gone through it, and it’s easy to get to the point where going on vacation seems like more trouble than it’s worth!

The upfront pain is good pain. If you haven’t been diligent about cleaning out your inbox, making sure you’ve set good goals that take into your time off, and groomed someone to cover for you – then you deserve it! There’s nothing better than the feeling you finally get late on that final Friday afternoon before you start vacation where all seems to be in order. Imagine feeling that way once a month, or every Friday, wouldn’t that be something? I think for most of us the lack of a read deadline to end the week with all in place means we never build the habit – and so vacation preparation feels like working an extra day or two just so that we can go.

The return to the office pain, that’s harder to live with, and harder to fix. Most of us return to find hundreds of messages in our inbox, all that have to be read. Turning on the ‘out of office’ flag is useful, but it doesn’t stop the flow of mail. Even if the person covering for you handled everything, much of it still necessary FYI that you have to read. It’s so awful to look at that many dread returning to work. It’s not that so much extra work has piled up, it seems like it has, and that causes stress.

I can offer three strategies to counter that:

  • Delegate access to your inbox and have someone screen it for stuff that you don’t need to read or that has been handled. This is a more common model for executives, but it can help some.
  • Come in 2 hours early your first day back to catch up on email. 2 hours, and from there you’re back on a normal schedule. Budget for it, do it early so that you’re not distracted by morning meetings and people stopping by to ask about the vacation.
  • Instead of ‘out of office’, change it to ‘On Vacation’ and include a note that you will not receive email during that period, direct them to your fill in person, and ask that they contact you when you return on x date. On return to the office, select all, delete.

Beyond email, it’s easy to arrive at the office stress free and by 5 pm feel like you never went on vacation at all. Recognize that maintaining that stress free state of super relaxation isn’t possible, but also remember to put things in perspective. If you can’t do it the first day back from vacation, when will you be able to do it? One of my tricks is to block out time on that first day back, gives me time to re-acclimate. Make that Monday a slow day. Come in early to do email, leave an hour early to compensate.

The strange thing about all of this is that managers live it as much as anyone, but they could – if they chose to – do more to reduce the stress of that first day back. One way would be to not schedule you for any meetings, no Monday deliverables. Stop by your desk by mid afternoon to see how you’re managing and if overloaded already act as a calming influence. Think about it, we know that returning from vacation sucks and can actually increase stress, why wouldn’t it be a good idea to actively manage that transition just like you would a first day employee?

I’ve seen many people (including me) check email while out of the office on vacation to reduce the stress upon return. Bad idea. Unplug, the organization will survive, or will send someone to find you if it’s that important.

Can’t say I’ve mastered any of this yet, but planning for it instead of reacting to it is the first step towards healthier vacations.