Everyone looks forward to taking a holiday, right? We yearn for the days to go more quickly, to fast-forward to the point where we are on that beach or holding a cold beer or frolicking in the pool.
We promise ourselves we will use the time wisely; keep up with regular exercise, capture all the creative ideas we'll have, take stock and re-charge.
From dreaming to dreadingThis blissful, mental-escapism probably lasts until about a week before your departure. At this point, the word "holiday" may well set your heart racing for all the wrong reasons.
The must-do-before-leaving list is not getting any shorter. Your diary is already full for the week you return. The complexity of handing over multiple projects to multiple people makes you wonder whether it would be easier to can the holiday and just get on with it yourself.
In fact, a study of 96 employees in the Netherlands, mentioned in an article by the British Psychological Society, found that indicators of health and welling actually worsened in the week immediately before taking annual leave. Other studies noted that physical illnesses increased in the first week away from work due, they surmised, to the impact on the immune system caused by a sudden shift from a high-stress environment to a low-stress environment.
And most of us are familiar with the feeling (usually by day 2 of returning) as though we've never been away. I've even heard people question the value of taking time off work at all!
Logically and intuitively, we know this isn't how it's supposed to be but when we're in the middle of it all, it can be hard to see a workable alternative. So what can we do to make the holiday reality feel closer to the holiday dream?
Preparing to leave:
Remember, no one is irreplaceable at work.If you think things will grind to a halt while you're away, you may represent a single point of failure. Without being too maudlin, what would happen if you didn't turn up at work tomorrow....or ever again?
While it can feel good to feel needed, if you are so essential you can never take a break, it can have the opposite effect on your well-being.
What are the things that only you can do? You want that list to be short and specific to your skills and experience - and even these items can be shared or delegated for certain periods. Don't confuse being needed with adding value. After all, leadership is what happens when you're not there!
Take more (smaller) holidaysBuilding up to one, big break can feel overwhelming. Consider taking a few long weekends or a couple of mid-week days off during the year. These shorter absences are good ways of training yourself to step away from work. Major things are unlikely to go wrong while you're away for such a short time and you can build on what went well, and what didn't, ready for your next break.
Run, jump or walk away on your last day in the officeMy last day before holiday was always a long one. Leaving work late in the evening often meant I was still mentally processing well in to the night or even the next day. Exercise, whether the gym, a class or a walk, counteracts stress so you can mentally and physically leave work behind.
Set your own rules and stick to themSome people turn everything off and forget about work. For others, not knowing what may be happening or what they may be coming back to is a source of stress in itself.
Think about what would work for you. If you'd prefer to keep on top of your Inbox or make a couple of calls, talk to the people you're holidaying with. Agree on a plan that suits you all.
Personally, checking my emails for a maximum of 15 minutes, twice a week is sufficient for me to know what's there and to deal with it if required. This leaves me free to enjoy every last bit of my time away.
Make it lastApparently we are most likely to remember the best, worst and last moments of an experience. Often our last days away involve mundane tasks so think about what you can also do to create a positive lasting memory.
Break yourself in gentlyAvoid Mondays! Starting back on a Wednesday (or Thursday or Friday) gives you time to ramp back up with the weekend not far away. This is particularly useful as returning from holiday creates work at home too (unpacking, washing, food shopping etc.) which can feel like a double whammy downer!
Bring more holiday to every dayDid you sit in one place for days on end while you were away? Even if you spent a lot of time on a sun-lounger, the chances are you also moved a bit, even it was just from pool to bar to restaurant. So why is it that so many of us find ourselves "stuck" at our desk or in back-to-back meetings within hours of returning to work? This is not how we thrive.
While it may not be practical to take a daily siesta, moving regularly and getting fresh air, even if only for 10 minutes at a time, has a positive impact on our concentration, memory and stress levels.
Smoothing the transitionAs I write, I am noticing that the main theme here is about the shift from work to holiday and back again - the transition. We talk about switching on (at work) and switching off (not at work) as if it were as simple as completing or breaking a circuit, but it's not. The more we can smooth these transitions, the better it will be for our mental and physical well-being and, I suspect, for our productivity.
But I'm not suggesting we maintain a laid-back "manana" throughout. Colin Wilson, CEO of coaching and training organisation Business Athlete, highlights the significance of transitions for elite athletes. Watch top-seeded tennis players between points or a rugby team re-grouping during a match. It's these mini "holidays" taken at key points that actually support their peak performance when it counts.
I wish you a lovely holiday whenever, wherever and however you choose to take it and may you return to work energised, refreshed and raring to go!
If this still feels like an impossible task, do get in touch.
Stephanie works with intelligent individuals and teams on leadership, personal impact, choice and change.
Find out more at www.stephaniesmithcoaching.co.uk