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Mental wellness

November 08, 2017

Looking for a restful vacation? Try unplugging

Trying to keep up with work while you’re on vacation can be more stressful than not going away at all. Here’s how to unplug and get the rest you need.

Many of us start the first few moments of the day on our phones – first hitting the snooze button on the alarm, then checking the messages we received while we were asleep. Our phones are powerful tools, integrated into our lives both at home and work. However, as the line between work and home life blurs, many of us are failing to unplug fully, and be fully present in the moment, doing whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing.

Perhaps you’ve called a colleague while on vacation to review a report. Chances are good that you’ve sent or answered emails after business hours. But while urgent matters sometimes do come up that need our immediate attention, experts say that not entirely unplugging can derail the benefits of a vacation and impair your productivity at work.

“Studies consistently illustrate the inefficiencies of multitasking,” says Dr. Marie-Hélène Pelletier, Director of Workplace Health for Sun Life Financial. “You likely can’t fully relax or fully focus on work if you’re trying to do both.”

German researchers studied the benefits of mentally disengaging from work or “unplugging,” and found that employees who unplug or disconnect most from work during off-hours “are more satisfied with their lives” and reported fewer symptoms of psychological strain. Despite spending more time unplugged, they were just as engaged while at work as those who disconnected less.

The time-honoured way to relax and get away from work-related stress is to take a vacation. But in the digital age, vacations aren’t what they used to be. Despite the proven benefits of unplugging, it can be a challenge to stay away from your inbox. But by planning carefully and being intentional about unplugging, taking time off can give you new energy. The next time you go on vacation, try these tips to better manage unplugging from work when you’re off the clock:

Make a plan to unplug from work

Identify what your boundaries are and create a plan. If you’re going to be checking your email while you’re away, let your colleagues know how frequently you will be checking in. If you tell them you’ll only be checking your inbox once in the morning, they will have different expectations from you than if you say you’ll be on-call all day.

Set an out-of-office reply

When you go on vacation, make sure your auto-reply message notes whom to contact if you’re unreachable for urgent matters. And if you like, mention how frequently you will be checking your email. “One employee set their out-of-office email to say that any email coming in would automatically sent to trash,” says Pelletier. “The note also invited people to send a follow-up email when they returned from vacation if it was urgent." While this plan may not work for everyone or may sound extreme, says Pelletier, it illustrates the importance of letting colleagues know your availability in advance.

Talk to your boss about vacation protocol

Often we hesitate to unplug fully or even to take a vacation at all, because we feel guilty about taking time off and leaving our colleagues to take up the slack or we’re concerned about dealing with a backlog of work when we get back. We might even be nervous about how our boss will react to our vacation request.

Deal with this issue head-on and talk to your manager about what the expectation is when it comes to vacations. Have a transparent conversation with your boss, and say something like, “I would like to get your read of how vacations are handled on our team,” says Pelletier. This lets you learn what your manager’s expectations are and lets you voice any concerns you may have. Ideally, your manager will encourage you to take all your vacation time (although perhaps not exactly when you want to take it). More organizations are promoting health and wellness, says Pelletier, and strongly supporting employees to take their vacations is part of that promotion.

Once you’ve spoken with your boss, let your travel partners and/or family know you may have to do some work while you’re away.  “Let them know if you may need to check emails regularly or over a few specific days, but also let them know that you will unplug,” says Pelletier. “That way, you are committing to your plan even further.”

When you’re on vacation, make sure to take the time to get exercise and practise self-care. Sometimes trips can be filled with loads of activities, but it’s essential to take a step back – even if you have to schedule those breaks to make sure they happen.

“On vacation, make sure you weave in a moment now and then to do something like yoga or to go for a walk,” says Pelletier. “And apply the same best practices to your weekends.”

3 tips to make taking time off work less stressful

  1. Make a deliberate effort to begin working ahead on any deliverables you have due 2 to 3 weeks in advance of your trip, because last-minute demands will very likely pop up. “Don’t wait until the week before your vacation,” says Pelletier.
  2. If you go out of town, try to give yourself an extra day before returning to work just to decompress, do laundry and do whatever else you have to get yourself ready for the workweek.
  3. Continue the self-care practices you implemented when on vacation, so you can re-engage with your work with a clear mind. “Sometimes we think of vacation as a bubble, but how we plan for vacation applies to life outside of vacation time, too,” says Pelletier. 

Life can be quite demanding at times, so make the most of your off hours by setting boundaries, unplugging and taking care of yourself.

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