Need a vacation from your vacation? How to make your post-vacation return to work less awful

We hope to feel rested when we return to work from vacation, but oftentimes we don't. Luckily, there are ways to make the transition a bit smoother.

Returning to work after vacation is like having the Sunday scaries but worse. You're supposed to feel happy and rested, but oftentimes you feel the opposite.

As Twitter user @SkarSkarSkar writes, "Going back to work after taking a week off and I'm filled with anxiety, guilt, feeling like I'm lost/all over the place — can often feel like it erases the necessary (rest and recuperation) the (out of office) time was originally for."

Experts say there are multiple factors that contribute to not getting the relaxation that's expected out of vacation, but luckily there are ways to make the transition back a bit smoother.

Digital wellness expert Mark Ostach explains that you could be setting yourself up for an unrestful vacation even before it begins.

"Cramming in as much as we possibly can into our work week before vacation creates a sense of overwhelm leading up to the actual vacation itself," he explains, adding that organizing the last-minute details of going away can also add stress. "Anxiety leading up to a vacation can sometimes disrupt our ability to get into the time off."

The type of vacation can also contribute to your level of relaxation.

"When we hear the word 'vacation,' we often think of relaxing and unwinding. While this can be the case for many types of vacations... other trips may actually require quite a bit of energy – think beach vacation versus visiting a big city," explains Melissa Dowd, a therapist at virtual mental health and primary care company PlushCare.

Setting yourself up for a restful time off

One of the first steps in creating a restful time off is to prepare your work for your departure by informing your clients, setting clear expectations around timelines and enlisting co-workers to help out if needed while you're away. 

"Be as organized as possible so you can feel confident that things will operate smoothly in your absence," Dowd says. "That way you can fully relax and disconnect."

It's also helpful to manage expectations of the time away, as we often go into vacation idealizing it, says Christina Jeffrey, a licensed mental health counselor and chief reputation officer at Humantold, a New York-based provider of psychotherapy services.

"We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves – we're like, I'm gonna unplug, I'm gonna relax – and it almost becomes like another thing on a to do list. So we don't really get the space to enjoy ourselves," she says.

While it’s understandable to try and make the most of time off, scheduling out full days of activities can be exhausting and leave little time for rest. That's why it's important to actually schedule time for both adventure and relaxation.

"One of the beauties of taking time off from work is to give our bodies and minds a break from the responsibilities we are tasked with each day," Dowd says. "It’s important that we allow space to slow down and rest, so we have the energy needed to feel ready to go back to work."

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How to actually relax on vacation

So you've created time to rest, but how do you actually relax when you're so used to your fast-paced schedule? Putting your phone away is key.

"As much as you can, give yourself permission to be present on your vacation" Dowd says.

If there are small tasks, like sending a few emails, that you can get done quickly, Ostach says to "give yourself the grace to actually do them" so that they don't weigh on your mind and ruin your chances of relaxing the rest of the trip.

Otherwise, put the phone away! This rule also applies for social media. In order to be in the moment, Ostach encourages people to be grateful as opposed to "gramful" during vacation.

"We become more concerned with displaying our experience... (and using) our phones to capture that perfect moment," he says. "But in actuality...  it doesn't allow you to be all in."

Instead, opt to edit and upload those sunset pictures when you're traveling back home, not while you're still on the beach. 

Connecting to nature can also help. Ostach suggests using a form of meditation that engages all five of your senses as a way to ground yourself.

For example, feeling the sand against your feet, listening to the birds flying overhead and smelling the ocean breeze.

Jeffrey suggests finding what works best for you. For example, trees are what make her feel most at ease.

"Just taking an afternoon and going into a forest," she says. "It sounds silly but it's how I recharge, and it gives me that energy to come back into my life."

She adds that it may also take some unlearning to tap into a restfulness we're not taught to seek in our society.

“The Western American mindset is, if we're not producing, we're not worth anything," she says. "We have to kind of really push back against that mentality if we really want to recharge.”

Making the return to work smoother

Hopefully your more restful vacation will make your return to work easier, but there are other ways to ensure a smoother first week back in the office.

Set yourself up for success by not overloading your schedule the week you're back.

"Go easy on yourself as you transition back to the daily grind and make few plans the week after your return," Dowd advises.

If possible, give yourself a day or two buffer between your trip and work for a chance to recharge.

"Your body and mind will welcome that opportunity to adjust back to your normal daily life," she says.

Going to bed early that week will also help you feel fully rested and combat any jet lag you may experience from travel. 

While experiencing some anxiety tied to your return is normal, Jeffrey says to be mindful if it's leaning closer to feelings of heavy dread.

If this is the case, it may be time to consider where those emotions are stemming from, she says, including work environment or other stressors. 

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