How to Use Your Vacation Days to Combat Burnout

Actually taking time off is just the beginning.

By Jessen O’Brien

Americans don’t know when to take a break. Technology has made the distance separating our work from our home irrelevant, a situation with powerful consequences in a country where busyness has become a status symbol—in part because the myth of the American dream portrays hard work as the engine of social mobility. About two thirds of fulltime workers feel burnt out some or nearly all of the time, according to Gallup’s 2018 study Employee Burnout, yet the U.S. Travel Association reports that 55 percent of Americans didn’t use all of their PTO last year, forfeiting 768 million vacation days.

“We don’t make it easy for people to have a work-life balance,” says Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America—an organization helping establish that very balance—and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has Time. “You have work systems that value overwork, and it makes it very difficult to take vacation.”

Follow these tips to take back your vacation time—and get the most out it.

Change Your Mindset

Stop viewing vacations as an indulgence. “[People don’t] understand how critical it is to have time off,” Schulte says. “A lot of people feel guilty—they don’t feel like they deserve [a vacation] or that they’re too busy.”

Vacations are very, very good for us. Much like working out or eating well, taking time off has real benefits for our health and happiness. Vacations reduce stress, increase productivity, improve sleep, and decrease the likelihood of a heart attack in women and men.

Familiarizing yourself with why time off is important can help you adjust your mindset. “The way you think about things really impacts how you end up experiencing them,” Schulte notes.

Vacation Like It’s Your Job

Approach time off with the same deliberateness you bring to work. Decide what you want to get out of your vacation, whether it’s bonding with family, having an adventure, or relaxing.

Once you’ve set your priorities, organize your vacation around them. “When you plan for it, it’s much more likely to happen,” says Schulte. If you want to recharge but your children are active, carve out an hour or two alone each morning. You can take the kids on an adventure in the afternoon—then look after them while your partner relaxes.

Tell the Office Early and Often

It’s much easier to put a vacation on your calendar in January before it fills up—and looking ahead gives you a better chance of planning projects around your time off instead of vice versa. Even if the days you take shift, putting them on the schedule at the beginning of the year can make a big difference.

“As you get closer to your vacation, make sure everybody knows,” says Schulte. “Communicate it up and down—to bosses and supervisors, peers and team members, and direct reports.” Find out what everyone needs from you so that you can wrap up projects or hand them over before heading out.

Schedule Transition Days

Block out the entire day before you leave on vacation for everything you need to get done. That way, you’ll have a clear conscience. “You might want to create a transition day when you get back too,” suggests Schulte. “[So you] have nothing to do except answer email and get caught up.”

Plan for Your Email

Speaking of email: Write an out-of-office message that lets people know who to contact while you’re away. Decide if you won’t look at email or, if that’s not realistic, set aside a certain amount of time. Maybe you spend half an hour online every morning or ten minutes twice a day. But when you’re offline, don’t look. The point is to not let email overwhelm your vacation.

“If you have a partner who is also working, it’s really important to have conversations with them about what they need and want out of time off, and how they’re going to handle work,” says Schulte. Otherwise, you could end up arguing instead of enjoying your time together.

Resist Fade-Out

The American Psychological Association’s 2018 Work and Well-Being Survey reports that most Americans return from vacations with more energy (66 percent) and less stress (57 percent). Forty percent, however, say those benefits last only a few days, and 24 percent say they disappear the moment they set foot in the office. This phenomenon is called fade-out.

To combat fade-out, work whatever was most valuable about your vacation into your routine. If you enjoyed reconnecting with friends, make it a point to go to lunch weekly. And when the stress creeps up? Start planning your next vacation—after all, it’s good for you.

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: October 2019