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5 Steps to a Stress-Free Vacation

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by Janet Ungless

We've all been there: you finally took that vacation and it's your first day back at the office. Waiting for you are 400 unopened emails, endless fires to put out, and a to-do list longer than your vacation itinerary.

In these moments it's easy to throw up your hands and think that taking some much-needed time off isn't worth the aggravation. In fact, a lot people seem to feel this way--according to a Glassdoor survey, less than half of U.S. employees take their earned days off. Whatever the reason--a "martyr complex," dreading the pileup of work that will greet your return, or fearing that if things run smoothly in your absence you'll be viewed as replaceable--a State of American Vacation report found a sharp decline over the last 15 years in the amount of vacations we take.

If you're on the verge of giving up on some restful time off think about this: experts agree that regular R&R has all kinds of positive effects, including stress relief, a lowered risk of heart disease, and improved mental health and clarity. There's also new research showing that spending time out of the office increases your chances of a raise or promotion. How's that for smart business sense!

The truth is, taking time off does pose some challenges. The key to enjoying a restorative break is to plan for one. Here are 5 tips for minimizing vacation-induced stress.

1. Find the right time

The first thing to do, according to Forbes.com, is touch base with your boss "about a mutually agreeable time...some managers prefer that you're away when they're away" while others (especially in the corporate world) would rather that employees stagger time off, ensuring a presence in the office. Once your vacation is planned, let your boss know (in writing, if possible) the exact dates you'll be away. Periodically follow up to refresh his or her memory.

2. Plan ahead
According to the Harvard Business Review, advance planning is super important for reducing vacation stress. Once you've settled on the dates, block out the time on your calendar as "out of office" to give colleagues, or anyone else who checks your schedule, a heads up. If your company uses an automated vacation planning system, submitting your request in advance increases the likelihood you'll get your requested slot.

3. Designate a pinch hitter
Line up a coworker or second in command who can answer emails, keep customers happy, or make decisions on your behalf. If you work in an office, make sure his or her contact info is included in your away email message and/or voicemail. HBR suggests setting your email auto-response the day before you actually leave to give yourself some breathing room and time to wrap up loose ends. And clearly word your message to say that you'll be away until X date, and it may take a couple of days after you're back to reply.

4. Set ground rules

Sixty-seven percent of employees polled in the Project Time Off study said their managers gave mixed messages about being out of the office. The bottom line is, it's up to you to be assertive about your need for a break. Taking a vacation shows your boss that you value your wellbeing, which in turn reminds them that you are valuable.

Brief your manager about how you've prepared for your absence--and be clear that you won't be available or connected 24/7. Perhaps you can set one or two designated check-ins during the week. Establishing these boundaries means you won't feel compelled to check your phone all day--which you shouldn't do if you truly are looking to wind down. Let your boss know that you're not totally checked out, but not 100% reachable either.

5. Now...relax!

Take the time to consciously unplug, reconnect with family and friends, see and do new things. Or just chill out. Catch up on sleep, read a book, listen to music. This time off should reaffirm that you can take control over your relaxation, and that applies when you return to work as well.