If you’re working while on vacation this summer, this column is for you

July 21, 2021, 3:41 PM UTC
Worksheet-Work on Vacation
Many are viewing this summer as their last gasp of remote working.
Jay L. Clendenin—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Welcome to Worksheet, a newsletter about how people are working smarter in these turbulent times.

You know how the creep begins. An email here, a meeting there, a “Let me just deal with this now” and two hours later… your holiday is over. 

This summer feels especially vulnerable to the blending of work and relaxation because that’s been the case for so much of the last year. And setting boundaries now feels really hard…to impossible. Some of us (guilty) are scheduling time away in beautiful places thinking we can do it all. Indeed, Americans plan to take an extra five days of vacation this year. One survey found that nearly two-thirds of respondents felt vacation deprived. In a global ranking, Americans took the fewest number of vacation days last year.

“The pull of inertia is challenging to overcome,” said Leah Weiss, cofounder of Skylyte, a mental-health startup. “The risk of burnout increases when we do not build structured rest into our lives.” She notes the problem predates the pandemic due to workers’ “beliefs that they can’t face the workload they will be met with when they return or a conviction that they are indispensable to their teams.”

A few weeks ago, I made the case for a “summer sabbatical,” an intentional giving and creating of distance from the office and all the expectations of each other that come with it. Recently, I’ve heard from many of you about how hard it actually has been to disconnect. Perhaps you scheduled time away, post-vaccination, sensing a return to “normal” in this last summer where you could work from anywhere—only to find yourself staring at your phone or laptop. It turns out that breaking habits is harder than just the will to do so, and we can partly blame the biology of the brain. 

“Our amygdala has kept us in a constant state of hyperarousal for 500+ days. We are wired to stay aroused, on edge and anxious,” said Leo F. Flanagan Jr., a psychologist and founder of the Center for Resilience.  “Expect it to take at least 72 hours for you to come down from this state. During those 72 hours you are likely to feel uneasy and driven to do things. Do your best to resist.”

So you might have to work a bit to stop working. I asked him and other experts for some of the new rules of vacationing: 

Let’s say you have two weeks to play with…

Is it okay to work at all if you are away? Many people are viewing this summer as their last gasp of remote working, so they are bunking with family overseas or in another state, or booking cabins in the woods and beach houses for extended periods of time. I asked how to sequence time for work and time for play, and the range of responses surprised me. 

Take nine of the 14 days for healing and vacation, says Flanagan. He also suggests scheduling time for relaxation: “Meditate for 20 minutes at least once a day and ideally three times a day,” he said. “Engage with nature by watching sunrises and sunsets, walking in nature, sitting by lakes, streams, or the ocean. Spend time with friends and family.”

Others suggest bookends of the time. Take off a few days to get to know a place, work in between and then take off more time so you return refreshed. Other considerations are time zones, jet lag and whether you have space for privacy. 

Ask yourself some questions and impose structure

The question of how your work affects everyone else around you feels key. Workplace coach and author Ruth Pearce says: “How will the enjoyment of others—partners, children, parents, friends—who are on vacation with you, be impacted? They may feel that time with them is less important than work, you may send a message to your family that work is most important.”

She also wants you to map out what the work will look like, such as small projects versus a few hours a day. “What projects will you focus on? Daily operational work or special projects that you want to get done but never seem to have time for? The latter is more of a mental vacation because it breaks usual patterns,” she says, while “the former may make it harder to feel like you are getting a break.”

Don’t forget that formulating strategy is work. There’s a reason the company offsite was so far away. Getting out of routine can inspire new thinking and approaches. 

Get used to this new life

Some of the flexibility you are craving on vacation comes from a recognition that work-life balance has fundamentally changed, says Rick Grimaldi, author of FLEX: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the American Workplace. “It’s not just that work is encroaching on our ‘free’ time, our personal lives are also spilling into our workday. It’s more and more common for employees to set their own hours, work remotely at least part of the time, leave to pick up kids from school…”

He says to get into vacation mode by scheduling chunks of time versus bursts of it. “Moving between worlds is not always easy. While a call may only take 20 minutes, you might hear something upsetting on the call.” he says. “Then, when you try to move back to ‘vacation mode’ it’s hard to be present.”

It takes a village to go on vacation

Respecting boundaries is not only your job but your boss’ and team’s, too. Grimaldi suggests companies treat vacation time as sacred and make that a part of their culture. “People need to know to reach out to someone on vacation only if absolutely needed,” he said. “This goes a long way toward preventing ‘scope creep’ around being constantly available.”

Other ideas, from Jennifer Moss, a workplace wellbeing researcher and author of the upcoming book, The Burnout Pandemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It

  • Don’t assign someone a project right before their vacation. 
  • Set an out-of-office message and be explicit. “The message must be clear messages will not be checked or calls answered while away. Add a one-day buffer upon return date to regroup before diving right back in,” Moss said. “Send out an email to stakeholders before a week before starting a vacation to avoid last-minute requests from clients or customers.

Wondering what else the future of work holds? Visit Fortune‘s Smarter Working hub presented by Future Forum by Slack.

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Missouri is rewarding businesses that get 70% of their workforce vaccinated with these signs. (FOX4 KC)

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