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4 things that can ruin the effectiveness of your vacation

Taking PTO off is crucial, but if you’re doing these things, you could be undermining any mental health benefits.

4 things that can ruin the effectiveness of your vacation
[Photo: The Good Brigade/Getty Images]

Too many employees are bad at taking vacations.

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In recent survey by experience management and software company Qualtrics, 49% of employed Americans admitted to working for an hour or more a day while on vacation, and around one-quarter work more than three hours each day they’re on paid time off.

This sort of distracted time off—whether self-imposed or set by employer expectations to be available at the time—essentially cancels out the purpose of spending time off the clock.

And in a country the Center for Economic and Policy Research calls “No-Vacation Nation,” it shouldn’t be surprising the survey reports only 26% of workers used all their paid time off. Further, more than one-quarter of workers shared they do not feel rejuvenated after their vacations.

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Of course, it’s a larger systemic problem: Not everyone gets paid vacation time. “One of the most striking findings,” says Adewale Maye, who worked on the most version of the “No-Vacation Nation” paper, “is how the U.S. is still the only developed nation without federally mandated paid vacation time. Seeing so many nations within Europe offer this time to be used for rest, family, or simply to take time for oneself, speaks to how many other countries value workers’ well-being and how far behind the U.S. is in truly supporting [its] workforce.”

Vacations can do wonders for people’s mental health and well-being. People who take vacations are at less risk for cardiovascular problems and other life-shortening factors, like depressive symptoms.

Brooks Gump, professor of public health at Syracuse University, studies the effect of work on our health, including how vacations can alleviate (or elevate) stress. Gump and his team have studied a special phenomenon around the “fade in” and “fade out” benefits of a vacation. These two stages are essentially the span of anticipating time off leading up to vacation and the period of sustained benefits individuals experience after a vacation. In essence, the level of vacation’s enrichment and restfulness are dependent on how we feel before and after our time away from work.

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And there are a certain set of behaviors that can wreak havoc on any restfulness benefits. Here’s what to avoid.

1. Working during a vacation

It’s all too easy to take a quick peak at your inbox when you’re taking time off. But it can be a slippery slope. Instead, it’s best to resist, and use the time as an opportunity to create clear boundaries between your work responsibilities and personal time.

By working during vacation, workers create a sensation of still being “plugged in,” diminishing any benefits of time off.

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Studies specifically about the dangers of working on vacation are scarce, but the downside of overworking in general is clear, as well as the upsides of taking vacation. For instance, research published in 2020 from a group of Finnish researchers found that taking consistent vacation time to be an integral ingredient to workers staying mentally healthy. Conversely, a study by the World Health Organization found that working more than 55 hours was linked to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

2. Keeping your notifications on

Think about how distracting notifications on your phone or computer can be when you’re attempting to focus deeply, or power through a project at work. The same sensation can be just as disruptive if you’re aiming to relax. Notifications cause worry and distraction, instantly taking you out of your blissful time off. By neglecting to disable your notifications, you’re basically ensuring your rest will be less restful.

3. Not taking enough time off

There is the possibility you’re simply not taking enough time off to get the full benefit of a vacation. Research is mixed on the right number of days one needs to take, with one data set suggesting it takes around a week for workers to feel they’ve truly detached from work. But you don’t need to travel far, or spend a lot of money to reap the benefits of a break. A staycation, where you keep things more local and decompress at home, can make a difference, says Gump.

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In order to commit to taking your full paid vacation, it can help to shift how you think about the time off. Instead of feeling like you’re not picking up enough slack or that you’re going to fall behind, change how you think about vacation time. It’s not about weighing if you can break away from the office; it’s that you’re owed time off. “When you don’t take that vacation time, you’re basically writing a check to your employer; you’re donating money to them,” explained Celeste Headlee to Fast Company. 

4. Neglecting to plan before your vacation

If you’re still feeling stressed, it may be because you forgot to properly plan for your time off. After all, sitting in paradise feels less idyllic if you feel guilty about leaving the rest of your team with a stack of assignments and no clear instructions.

Practice good pre-vacation protocol by meeting most of your vacation week’s deadlines in advance. Then, make sure to look ahead on your calendar for any upcoming team needs or weekly responsibilities, and communicate with your team how to handle these assignments in your absence. Good planning comes down to clear communication.

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One other key part of planning for time off is setting a good out-of-office message. When you neglect to set up this type of communication, you may negate some of your other planning, because your contacts will continue to reach out if they haven’t been informed of your absence. That makes you more vulnerable to give into the temptation of checking your messages, and leaves you with a pile of tasks you’ll have to address as soon as you get back to work.

This sort of planning is important for when you “on ramp” yourself back to your work routine. How you return to work, and whether you experience stress during this period, is key to whether your vacation is restful. “You hear stories of people saying their work loads up when they’re gone, and they feel all this extra stress when they get back,” says Gump.

Gump has done research on work-related stress, most recently in a 2020 paper he coauthored with experts from UC Irvine and Syracuse. They found that workers were more likely to feel positive emotions when returning to work after a vacation if they left the office with a lower level of stress. People who were highly stressed before vacationing experienced no change or did not feel positive emotions.

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In other words, the amount of stress you experience at work cannot be through the roof prior to a vacation, for a break to be properly replenishing. “There is some evidence that work-related stress can also affect the impact of [a] vacation,” says Gump. “Higher work stress is associated with lower and fewer benefits from vacations.”

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About the author

Diana is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously, she was an editor at Vice and an editorial assistant at Entrepreneur

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