Expert tips: How to stop work anxiety from sabotaging your vacation

Last year, Madison Winey, 29, wanted to use her vacation days to drive from San Francisco, where she lives, to Bend, Oregon, to visit her family. But taking time off from her job as a lawyer always felt like “more stress than it’s worth, especially if you’re just going away for a couple of days,” she said. She would have to start planning for her absence weeks before leaving, and she was expected to provide times when she would check emails.

She had scheduled the visit when she thought there would be a bit of a lull at work — but a project timeline was delayed by two weeks, forcing her to postpone her trip. “All I needed was nine hours on a Saturday to be able to drive up to Oregon, and I wasn’t even able to take that,” she said. When she finally made it to Oregon, she worked the whole time.

Despite decades of research that has found that taking time off is good for workers’ mental and physical health, Winey’s experience is not unique. For those who are fortunate enough to receive paid time off at work, the majority of whom are full-time office workers, using those precious days can also create anxiety about re-entry.

In a survey in November, the career website Monster found that 87 per cent of over 1,000 American workers across industries experienced post-vacation stress and anxiety, which the company named “P.T.O. woes,” and that 72 per cent of workers refrained from taking vacation at all to avoid that stress. Psychologists and therapists classify post-vacation angst as anticipatory anxiety, a generic term to describe fear and worry about bad things that might happen in the future.

Dr. Rebecca Brendal, president of the American Psychiatric Association, likened the experience to the Sunday scaries, a term that has become popular on social media to refer to the dread one feels at the end of the weekend about going back to work. It is a cause for concern during this holiday season because it dovetails with a sharp increase in burnout among workers in recent months, she said.


“We know that mental health concerns are up and anxiety is up. The stress that Americans are facing every day has gotten to the point that taking time off has become stressful,” Dr. Brendal said.

In one widely cited study, published in 2000, researchers found that vacationing every year reduced overall risk of death. Brooks Gump, a professor of public health at Syracuse University and a co-author of that paper, ran a similar study last year. He and his team found that while workers with low-stress jobs felt calmer and less anxious before, during and after a vacation, those feelings didn’t seem to extend to those in high-stress jobs.

“Certain positions allow you to ease out and back into work, but high-stress jobs don’t really provide that context for a true break,” Dr. Gump said.

Morra Aarons-Mele, author of “The Anxious Achiever,” said she hears about this phenomenon often as a consultant for corporate teams. “So few work cultures actually encourage people to unplug, and most view working all the time as a badge of honor,” she said.

Eventually, Ms. Winey left the law firm for a role that was less client-focused and more flexible — but not everyone can just quit. And a large part of workers’ ability to take time off at all, much less enjoy it, is dependent on their industry or company culture.

Still, if you are able to get that vacation time, there are small steps you can take to minimize stress and reap its many benefits.


More than half of the respondents to Monster’s survey reported having to work overtime in order to catch up when they returned from paid time off. One way to help minimize the stress on your first day back is to carve out time for it before you leave, creating an “offramp” for yourself, said Simone Stolzoff, author of the forthcoming book “The Good Enough Job.”

“Offramping is basically time you spend, while you’re still on the clock, to prepare for what you might do when you’re back on the clock,” he said. You can make a list of priorities to tackle when you’re back, find co-workers who are willing to handle time-sensitive tasks while you’re out or set up time to catch up with them when you’re back.

Prepare everyone around you before you leave, Dr. Brendal said. “Effective managers and leaders who I try to emulate will start putting their out of office message up a week before they actually go out,” she noted. “When I first saw that, I would think, ‘Why are they signaling their vacation a week in advance?’ And then I realized it’s to set reasonable expectations.”

Whether you set your out-of-office message before your trip or at the outset, Dr. Brendal said, be clear about whom can be contacted in your absence in the case of a real crisis. Also, include a realistic time by which you will respond, which might be a few days after you return and dig yourself out of the email pile.


If your workplace uses additional communication platforms, like Slack or Microsoft Teams, set detailed away messages on those as well. You may even want to delete work apps from your phone or, at least, turn their notifications off. Making it clear in your away messages that you will be completely detached enables you to truly unplug.

Khemaridh Hy, a 43-year-old entrepreneur, still remembers coming back from his honeymoon 10 years ago to a mountain of email from his job at the financial firm BlackRock. Any lingering relaxation was wiped out. “I swear, I probably sprouted my first gray hairs on that flight back, because there were like 1,700 unread messages,” he said.

“It’s almost like you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t: If you do check your email and stay on top of things, then your spouse is like, ‘You’re always thinking about work.’ But if you don’t, you know that the minute you turn this thing back on, your life’s going to suck,” he said. Though his honeymoon was 10 years ago, it still stands out in his memory as a vacation that, though enjoyable, also caused him a lot of anxiety — a feeling that has continued almost every time he has taken a vacation since then.

Now, Mr. Hy uses email filters to keep his inbox from becoming overwhelming. “I always filter out a message where I’m not in the “To” line. It doesn’t mean I don’t read it, but I won’t prioritize reading it,” he said.



As counterintuitive as it sounds, if the emails at the other end of a vacation are keeping you up at night, you can schedule pockets of time during your vacation to just clean out the inbox, said Ms. Aarons-Mele, who almost always spends some time during vacations staying on top of messages. She’ll also share that plan with her husband so that they can hold each other accountable.


“He’ll be like, ‘I have a call at 2 p.m. but I’m not going to be online other than that.’ And I’ll say, ‘I am checking email today, but tomorrow I won’t,’” she said. Those specific, limited goals, she said, can keep work from taking over an entire day.


Alternatively, you can recruit a work buddy to text you an update every now and then, reassuring you that things are going smoothly, said Laura Vanderkam, author of “Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters.” She said it was “kind of the equivalent of reading through 300 emails but much more efficient.”



You may need to make a plan for what you will do with your free time so that you are not tempted to check in or think about work.

Many American workers have “internalized this belief that if we aren’t getting ahead, then we’re somehow falling behind,” Mr. Stolzoff said. “Our idea of self-worth and identity has just become so wrapped up in productivity that when we’re not being productive, we believe we are somehow less than.”

As a result, “people get caught in a sort of chicken-and-egg problem where they work all the time so they don’t know what to do when they aren’t working, and because they don’t know what to do when they aren’t working, they end up working all the time,” he said.

This is often a problem for Ms. Aarons-Mele when she takes time off. “I’m the worst — I’ll wake up at a beach resort and be like, ‘Now what?’”

To avoid falling into that trap, she said, you can schedule activities during your vacation that require focus: Sign up for a class, volunteer with an organization or visit a museum, whatever feels fulfilling and distracts you from your screens.



If you’re able to space out your return home and your back-to-office day, put something on your calendar that you can look forward to for that time in between, Ms. Vanderkam said.

“Let’s say you’re taking a trip and you come back the day before you start work. Maybe plan a get-together with friends that afternoon or go see a movie that night,” she said. “It’ll ensure you are not fixated on the thought of starting work the next day. You’ll likely be thinking about the fun still to come as opposed to the anxiety of starting work.”


A lot of times, the scenes that you envision about all the things that could go haywire at work while you’re away or the daunting situations you have to come back to are just your brain inventing catastrophes, said Bisma Anwar, a licensed therapist on the telehealth platform Talkspace: “We tend to build up things in our minds, and it’s usually not as bad as we think.”

To pull yourself out of that mind-set, Ms. Anwar suggested, ground yourself in the moment by meditating or working out so that bad thoughts don’t ruin your time off. While doing so, you can look back on all you achieved before vacation, Ms. Aarons-Mele said, “and tell yourself, I worked hard, I did a lot, I accomplished a lot, I deserve a break.”

And if you’re away for an extended period, remind yourself that most issues that come up at work in the first few days will probably be irrelevant by the time you return, Ms. Vanderkam said, so there isn’t much point worrying about them from a distance. If something is important enough for your attention, it will come up again when you’re back at work and ready to address it.

By Alisha Haridasani Gupta © 2022 The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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