Out Of Office (Sort Of)

Do you struggle to disconnect from work while on holiday? Learn how to let go of ‘vacation sabotage’ and get the most from your time off.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Do you struggle to disconnect from work while on holiday? Learn how to let go of ‘vacation sabotage’ and get the most from your time off.

Picture this: you’re lying beside the pool, a cocktail within arm’s reach and a gentle breeze washes over you. Bliss. It’s so tranquil, and you’ve waited so long for this trip… 

And yet, you can’t help thinking about work. How did that difficult client respond to the email you fired off before you left? What’s happening with that project you’re in charge of? Within seconds you’ve picked up your phone and logged into your emails, your holiday vibe melting away faster than ice cubes in your cocktail.

Welcome to the vacation sabotage, a situation where those who are constantly working during and after work hours, find it challenging to stop and fully enjoy leisure time. You may be on holiday, but mentally, you’re still at work – which is anything but the purpose of a holiday.

“We can find it hard to switch pace if our lives are generally busy and require a certain level of constant frenetic energy and cognitive overload,” explains Sydney-based psychologist Jocelyn Brewer. “It might take some people a few days to disconnect from their mental habits.

“I think to relax on holidays also involves the worry about what’s happening while they’re away, what things might go wrong or whether the person replacing them – if there is one – is managing well,” she says.

Technology isn’t exactly helping. Smartphones and Wi-Fi make it all too easy to stay connected to work. When you’re engaged in work, you’re at work – regardless of where you are in the world, Jocelyn says.

“We’re tempted to keep up with our emails and oversee what’s happening at work; we would read reports we never have time for. We are simply not [giving] our brains [a break] from the mental work of work.”

Why Holidays Matter

While there’s nothing wrong with caring about your job and wanting to excel, getting space from work regularly is actually one of the best things you can do to help yourself perform better in the long run.

“The change of surroundings, a different routine and change of focus from work to play allows us to rest and recuperate,” Jocelyn says.

Of course, there are those who have no problem switching off from work and hitting that resort without thinking of work. But for others, it’s a different story. Vacation sabotage may be more likely for those who hook their sense of identity to their jobs, Jocelyn says, making it harder to detach out of hours.

“Many of us define our lives by what we do for work,” she explains. “Work creeps into our home lives via technology, so we don’t separate from this as clearly as we used to. There is a general sense of increased busyness and demands not only our time but also on being responsive.”

Also, our increasingly divided focus can make the idea of relaxing foreign and unfamiliar. A Danish study published in the journal Nature Communications found that our collective attention spans have reduced in recent years – thanks to social media and the 24/7 news cycle. Fiona Craig, a Sydney life-balance coach who helps people live more satisfying lives, says she regularly encounters stressed-out clients who struggle to switch off.

“In the 80s and 90s, I could sit and read a book. Now, I read one or two pages, and my mind’s jumping to another topic. I have to [make a conscious effort to] bring my thoughts back to finishing that chapter,” she says.

Being Fully Present

To make the most of your vacation, Fiona recommends not overscheduling your time. “The whole point of a holiday is to actually have a break,” she says. “As much as I love [looking at] temples and eating [at far-fetched places], it’s about doing nurturing activities, like yoga or walks in nature.”

“Savour every moment,” Fiona advises. “Sometimes, I won’t take pictures because I want to be fully present, enjoying the smells, the sights and the sounds of a place. Technology [tends to] break us away from that moment.”

Leisure Sickness

A trap that some people fall for before the holidays is working late to finish tasks the night before, or even hours before their flight. That means you would spend the first few days of your trip completely exhausted. 

That stress increases your chances of coming down with ‘leisure sickness’ – a term for illnesses that typically hits certain people on holidays or weekends. Dutch researcher Professor Ad Vingerhoets says you’re more likely to come down with leisure sickness if you’re a perfectionist at work. 

Overloading your schedule before your holiday increases the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol. This lowers your immunity to infections, so it’s best to wind down gradually before your holiday. 

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1 Prepare well, so you can fully enjoy your break.

“Set clear expectations with your team or colleagues about the fact you will not be contactable and create contingency plans,” suggests Jocelyn.

2 Set your out-of-office message a day early.

“And list [your back-to-office date a day] after you’re back, so you don’t get bombarded the day you’re back at work,” Fiona suggests.

3 If you work in a team, ask a colleague to provide you with a small report.

Perhaps one or two paragraphs of what transpired during your break. “That stops you checking hundreds of emails to try and work out what had happened while you were away.”

4 Put limits on smartphone use.

“If you have to take your phone with you, set a time for half an hour or one hour, maybe in the evenings, to check emails,” Fiona suggests.

5 Learn to be OK with boredom.

It’s something you would probably usually dodge by reaching for your smartphone (perhaps out of habit than necessity). If doing nothing makes you anxious, centre yourself by putting the focus on your breath, and do deep breathing exercises.