Everyone enjoys time off from work, but there’s a difference between wanting a vacation and needing it to get through another long day on the job.
There are a number of travel getaways marketed as vacations to help combat burnout, but the truth is, no vacation will eliminate chronic workplace stress that is making you feel drained and increasingly disengaged, even on your days off.
“Burnout is a result of sustained high stress. This often comes from work-related stress, but can also be combined with stress from your personal life,” said Shannon Garcia, a psychotherapist at States of Wellness Counseling in Illinois and Wisconsin. “It’s the ‘I just need a week off’ mentality that is typically a sign of burnout.”
Here’s the truth about what taking a week or two off can and can’t give you:
It can be a helpful breather, but one vacation is not going to erase all your job stress and anxiety.
The unique advantage of summer vacations is that they fall at the midpoint of the year, which makes them a good time to take a step back and reflect on how you are feeling overall, said Nancy Hanks, an Atlanta-based partner at a management consultant organization.
“It is a way to take stock and say, ‘What have I accomplished so far? What am I proud of? ... Where have I been most present and absent in my own life, and what changes do I want to make for the rest of the year?’” she said.
But Hanks noted this reflective pause can only happen if you are actually able to rest. Hanks said she’s had summer vacations that felt more like an escape from work than an opportunity to relax.
“Man, I’ve been there. Emailing down to [the moment when] the airplane starts. You’re struggling to detach from email. People are still pinging you while you are gone. ... That is escape, trying to escape from something that feels awful,” Hanks said. “Versus when I’m in recovery: Yeah I’m tired, but it’s more that I’ve been in some productive struggle with work and I’m really now thinking about how I need to recharge so I come back in the next stretch of that.”
Garcia said the main sign of burnout is when you are most excited about your vacation because it gets you away from work. “If getting out of the office is more motivating for a vacation than laying on the beach, we might have a problem,” she said.
Research backs this concept. If you’re expecting your summer break to reenergize you for the rest of the year, think again: The post-vacation high you feel after a break does not last more than a few days.
Nearly a quarter of working adults in the U.S. said the energy boost and stress relief they got from a vacation vanished immediately upon returning to work, according to a 2018 Harris poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association. For another 40% of adults, the good mood from vacation only lasted a few days after they started working again.
“Websites and magazine articles offer plenty of tips on how to make the most of time out of the office, but often put the onus on the individual employee and ignore important organizational factors,” said David W. Ballard, an organizational consultant who was then the head of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence, in a statement about the study.
“A supportive culture and supervisor, the availability of adequate paid time off, effective work-life policies and practices, and psychological issues like trust and fairness all play a major role in how employees achieve maximum recharge.”
“A summer vacation is not a cure for burnout.”
In this way, vacations are only a temporary solution to much bigger problems such as unreasonable managers with unrelenting deadlines or dealing persistent, traumatic pandemic-related issues on the job.
“[A vacation] can definitely give you a much-needed break and be an opportunity to temporarily bring down your stress levels. However, if you jump back into exactly how things were before the summer vacation, any benefit it had will be gone rather quickly,” Garcia said. “A summer vacation is not a cure for burnout. Burnout is not your fault, but it will not go away unless you do something to address it.”
If you do feel like you’re only living for your next vacation, take steps toward a healthier rebalance in your work and life.
See your vacation as a reset button. “Take the vacation and make a commitment to yourself that you will take small, ongoing steps to combat burnout when you return,” Garcia said.
Those steps can include being intentional about how much work you allow to take up your weekend, and setting boundaries around when you are reachable in your off-hours.
Challenge internal assumptions that you can only take time off during the summer. A former education administrator, Hanks said she used to feel guilt at overburdening co-workers if she took time off when school was in session, as opposed to when it was out. “Inside, there was a fear that if I took it maybe at a different time something would happen while I was away,” she said.
But when Hanks got the opportunity to attend a work conference in Nepal one October, friends challenged her assumptions about why she couldn’t go and helped her reconsider. She now recommends people consider what they would need to communicate to managers before they jump straight to assuming they can’t take time off. See who might be able to cover for you, and in return, you might be able to do that for them in the future, she recommended.
To the extent that you can, you should also try to forecast what opportunities you have outside of summer for taking time off. “All positions have a cadence, and where might the cadence be more generous in terms of your ability to step away?” Hanks said.
If possible, take more frequent vacations. It puts less pressure on that one big summer vacation to go well. During her time in education, Hanks saw a difference in happiness between teachers who had two weeks off every eight weeks versus teachers who had the whole summer off.
“I know for sure that the teachers who worked the year-round schedule were happier with those more frequent breaks,” she said. “It means that all of the weight or pressure is not sitting on one break or one vacation.”
Learn to recharge yourself on a daily basis, outside of taking time off from work. “Sitting on your bed scrolling mindlessly on your phone when you get home from work might bring you a temporary escape from your stress, but it’s not actually recharging you,” Garcia said.
She recommends adding in more active forms of relaxation to your schedule. “That could be cooking, taking your dog for a walk, dancing to music as you tidy, or gardening. Certainly days spent binging a TV show can be restful. But active relaxation is often overlooked.”