How to disconnect from work while on vacation
Doctors and researchers weigh in on specific tactics that will help keep your mind off work while on holiday.
On vacation and still reaching for your phone? You’re not alone.
The impact of email on work-life balance has affected a generation. Now, productivity apps like Slack and Zoom have made it nearly impossible to escape work life in your free time—even when you’re on the beach. In many ways, the pandemic has made so-called “grind culture,” or the expectation of always being available for work, even worse by further blurring the lines between home and professional life.
For travelers, these problems extend far outside working hours: Stress and burnout cause us to miss out on the relaxing pleasures of a holiday. A frequently cited study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies showed that because “it takes time to wind down after a stressful work period and acclimatize vacation,” it takes eight days of vacation for the benefits of a break to be fully felt.
This research greatly informed future studies on stress and travel, including a survey in 2018 that found 43 percent of Americans find it difficult to disconnect from work while on vacation.
Even when “out of the office” doesn’t mean what it used to—and when powering down your phone seems nearly impossible—there are some tips, tactics, and solutions to help save your vacation from becoming an extension of your workweek.
We asked medical professionals and experts in stress management to weigh in on the factors at play in today’s professional life and how to protect the time you set aside for relaxation.
Stress and its consequences
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the grind culture that leads to burnout by folding in isolation, fear, grief, and worry to the lives of workers. According to experts, one response to this predicament has been the “Great Resignation.” In August, the U.S. hit an all-time high with 4.3 million workers quitting in just one month.
(This is why pandemic stress breeds clutter—and here’s how to break the cycle.)
“Most of us are taught from a very young age that our work is our worth, and that if we aren’t doing all we can to satisfy our employers and be productive, we are going to wind up suffering immensely from poverty,” says Devon Price, a professor of social psychology at Loyola University Chicago and author of Laziness Does Not Exist.
As stress piles on, humans’ mood regulation becomes less effective, creative ability stunted, problem-solving diminished—and the body increasingly moves into survival mode, says Emily Nagoski, a health educator and author of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Responses to such burnout can include unhealthy eating, loneliness and despair, alcohol abuse, and other destructive behaviors.
Pandemic-related stress can take its toll in very physical ways as well, including increased blood pressure, reduced immune system functioning, and digestive troubles.
“We continue to push ourselves beyond the limits of our bodies,” says Nagoski. “We would never do this to our pets. We do [this] to ourselves every day.”
(How a book a day can keep pandemic stress away.)
Nagoski observes that burned-out travelers will often come down with a cold as soon as they arrive at their destination. This happens when a person’s body had kept them running and productive long past it was meant to, so it collapses when it finally has a chance to rest, she explains.
“You can live without adequate rest, but eventually it will come for you,” Nagoski says. “The need for rest will grab you by the shirt, slam you to the ground, put his foot on your chest, and [say] ‘I told you to lie down!’”
Stress, like any emotion, is “a tunnel,” she explains. Instead of moving through the tunnel by actively processing their discomfort, many people turn to “numbing” activities such as watching TV, scrolling social media, and eating junk foods. These will usually not work in releasing the pressure valve, she says—true rest requires considering and understanding the discomfort.
“We’re not designed to work hard all the time. And we’re not designed to be asleep the whole time,” says Nagoski. “We are designed to oscillate through the cycles of living. Wellness is not a state of mind. It is not a state of being. It is a state of action.”
Releasing the pressure valve
How can you keep your worries away when you’re on vacation? David B. Posen, a medical doctor and bestselling author of several stress management books, points to University of Chicago’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal research on “flow.” His research shows that when a person is deeply involved in what they’re doing, they lose track of time and of themselves.
Flow states work “because you can’t attend to the same two things in the same instance. If you are doing something that requires a certain amount of concentration, that’s all your brain can do,” says Posen.
One of the best ways to enter a flow state is to get physically active. “One of my sons does rock climbing—[when] you’re climbing up a rock face, believe me, he's not thinking about work,” Posen says. “He’s thinking about where to put his hand next, how to move his leg. The more compelling the exercise is, the more it will absorb you that way.”
Any activity you love can get you into a flow state—even reading a great book you can’t put down. But finding something to “do” is not the only answer. Sometimes the opposite, stillness, can provide the ideal antidote to stress.
Forgetting about work will naturally happen when you reconnect with yourself, says Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Buddhist nun of four decades and professor of Buddhism at the University of San Diego.
Tapping into mindfulness and spiritual meaning through meditation and breath work helps people get in touch with their bodies and minds. You can start just by closing your eyes and counting your breaths (count “one” on inhales, “two” on exhales). “A benefit of meditation is teaching us the importance of each and every moment of our lives,” says Tsomo. “This opens up a whole new world. You don’t have to be a Buddhist. You don’t even have to be spiritual or religious, or anything, just tune in.”
(Stressed-out kids need mental health days as much as adults.)
Finding gratitude can bring you closer to stabilizing stress.
“Sources of stability include family, friends, pets, spirituality and religion, nature,” says Posen. “Focus on what’s there, not what’s missing. When you start to think about all the little things to be grateful for, the list is almost endless. It gets people out of their own head and their own complaining [to] write it down.”
Advice for a more relaxing vacation
Physicians and academics who specialize in stress and burnout have developed several ways for people to manage such pressures in their daily lives; these same practices can help travelers work through stress while on vacation. Here are a few of the tips they shared.
Take time to rest before you travel: Turn off your phone after work, set up an out of office auto-reply after hours, and set up a limit for time spent on email on your phone, Price says. Make it harder for you to get back to work during off-hours by logging out of all work programs on your computer, shutting it down, and putting it away in a drawer, if possible. Spend your downtime away from a screen and pick up a book or another hobby.
Get creative: Nagoski says creative expressions like art, crafting, and journaling helps you move through stress. These activities create a channel for unpleasant feelings to be expressed outside yourself, which will signal the end of the stress cycle to your body. This shuts down your fight-or-flight response and relaxation will come naturally as a result.
Seek community: “The cure for burnout can only be all of us caring for each other,” says Nagoski. “I call it ‘the bubble of love’ of people and social connection, where you do not buy into the idea that your worth can be measured by your paycheck, or by your level of exhaustion, or by the your job title or the number of hours you work.” Spending time with people who make you happy can be comforting, energizing, and offer a diversion. Volunteering works similarly, Posen says; it takes people out of their own heads to think about others.
(Here’s why planning a trip can help your mental health.)
Embrace nature: Posen recommends watching a waterfall or sitting on a beach and watching the tide come in. He adds environments like these offer a soothing rhythm for your mind to release, and may even offer spiritual comfort.
Allie Yang is an editor on National Geographic’s travel desk. You can find her on Twitter.