On the road again…

To all the concerned people who wrote to inquire about my whereabouts, I am *so* flattered. Suffice it to say that I was reveling in rest, right up until the moment I started planning my return to work and realized that I’d be reporting stories in four different cities over four days this week. Two 7 a.m. departures, two two-hour layovers, one midnight arrival, four flights up or down the majority of the East Coast. And I’ve barely gotten started. So I hope you’ll forgive my delinquency and understand when I say that these old bones just aren’t what they used to be. (Remember when it was cool — and easy! — to stay up till 7? :o)

This self-flagellating breakneck return to work — combined with the already way too work-heavy “break” — did make me reflect, though. Just when you think you can be proud of yourself for finally taking a little time off, you realize that you’ve gone so long without a break that you end up spending the first half of your vacation just recovering, never mind actually having fun.

We’ve all seen stats like these, from a Harris/Expedia survey earlier this year: “Americans are likely to give back more than 574 million vacation days in 2006, with each employed U.S. adult age 18 and older anticipated to leave an average of four vacation days on the table.” And the U.S. lags behind most peer nations when it comes to average number of paid vacation days — 14 for us, versus 17 for Australia, 24 for Great Britain, and 39 for France, among others.

So we have a problem. But what about the fact that even when you try to be good and take your days off, you still end up working? No matter how far you go or how much you promise to disconnect, that never really seems to happen, does it? I’d bet I probably answered just as many – if not more – work e-mails during my vacation than I usually manage when I’m in the office. Somehow, that doesn’t seem all that restful.

But working on vacation is more and more the norm. In the days leading up to leaving, I would tell people trying to schedule meetings or otherwise ask me for “work” that I was going to be out, and their response was invariably, “Well, you’ll be checking e-mail, right?” or, “I’ll just call you on your cell.” It’s not like I was leaving for a month, and of course, I didn’t want them to call me, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t entertain it.

That’s just people’s expectation. And not meeting it, especially when even the higher-ups can be seen feverishly BlackBerrying from their beach bungalows, isn’t always an option. It’s so ingrained for me that while I was out, if I wasn’t actively “relaxing” or working, I found myself creating work. Were there some freelance projects I should be thinking about? What about that proposal I’ve been neglecting? Or those recent articles I’d been meaning to read? What is wrong with me?!

Add to that messages like this one — “I’m so proud of you for actually getting out of the office,” as though it were Escape from Alcatraz — from a very sweet publicist, and I have a serious case of vacationer’s guilt. But that aside, it is worth it to escape if you can. If only for the sake of your work (altruism, people). As an overworked friend of mine put it recently, “My brain has given up.” And at least in my experience, you can’t be all that productive, at least not in a meaningful way, sans cerebrum. Thoughts? Feelings? Rants?

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.