It takes planning, discipline and even a bit of work to have a good vacation and a real break from your job. With March Break a key vacation time for many families, here are some tips on how to make sure your week off is a good one- healthy and restorative. Aaron Schat is a professor of Human Resources and Management at McMaster University, and he specializes in work-related stress, health, safety, and workplace aggression.
Q: Should people do work when they are on vacation?
Aaron Schat (AS): My general recommendation is no, [do not do work while you’re away]. The importance of a vacation is to get rest from your daily work. And in that regard it’s really important for people if they are going to take a vacation and get the advantages that a vacation ought to provide. They need to disengage from their work related responsibilities.
'You’re looking to not necessarily be passive on your vacation, but to do something different.' - Aaron Schat, professor, Human Resources/Management, McMaster University
Q: Should people even bring their devices with them?
AS: Devices tend to be use for both work and non-work, so you’ probably want to have it available for some of the non-work related activities. Of course, the challenge is that it’s tempting to quickly check your work email and so forth. Try to be without it, but otherwise, the important thing is the discipline to bring it along and use it for non-work purposes.
Q: What is the psychological importance to disconnecting from your day job?
AS: You’re looking to not necessarily be passive on your vacation, but to do something different. In some ways, the notion of clearing ones mind is part of that. There’s some interesting research showing that doing very demanding work, physical work and so forth, but work that’s different than your daily work, can still be very restful and restorative.
Q: So it doesn’t just have to be rest and relaxation?
AS: Exactly. It can be other activities. Sometimes learning new skill and new things [can help]. It doesn’t need to be what we often refer to as rest and relaxation.
Q: Should a person fill all their time with these activities?
AS: I think you have some flexibility. A mix of rest and relaxation and some other activities is probably a good way to go. It’s not that you want to be overly regimented with your time because there’s a risk that if you try to schedule every slot that you have available, that, in and of itself, can add a level of demandingness and stress if what you are trying to do is to fill your time that you become very regimented.
'There might be a sense of dread in terms of the amount of work that you have coming back to.' - Aaron Schat, professor, Human Resources/Management, McMaster University
Q: What are some of the difficulties and stresses that people can experience when going on vacation?
AS: It’s a combination of things. There are obviously some aspects of the vacation itself. If you are flying somewhere, of course airports and so forth can be very busy, you can get into flight delays and so forth, and those are some of the stresses of the travel itself.
In other cases people find it very difficult to disengage from work and the demands of work remain even while you’re away. There might be a sense of dread in terms of the amount of work that you have coming back to.
It’s a problem if you don’t feel you’ve prepared well for the vacation, such as work that you left undone before you leave. So that’s why preparing for your vacation is really important, as well, to make sure that you feel a sense of accomplishment prior to leaving, so that you can truly say ‘OK, work is a good place, now I am prepared to go.’”
Related to that, it’s also very helpful if you have a second in command or others who are able to take on some of the work that would be normally done by you while you’re away, so that there’s a sense that work is still getting done even with you not doing it.
Q: Should people set strict goals on themselves when they go on vacation?
AS: There are some individual differences of how helpful that can be. I think, for some there’s a tendency to set those goals and become so regimented that it becomes stressful in the same way that work can be stressful. But on the other hand being somewhat intentional about saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to try this activity. I’m going to do this. I’m going to spend some time relaxing here.’ Those kinds of plans can be very helpful in really optimizing what you want to do with you vacation and after the fact reflecting and saying, ‘yeah, I did the types of things I wanted to on my vacation.’”
Q: How early should people prepare before going on vacation and how much time should they leave to prepare for going back to work?
AS: I think it depends a lot on what the nature of your work is and what type of work cycle you are on. For some they would need to start planning weeks and maybe even months ahead of time. Whether it’s informing clients of when you’ll be away and making sure that their needs are met prior to you leaving; if arrangement need to be made to have coworkers or others pick up some of your responsibilities; I think that’s important in terms of planning. For some, a few days may be sufficient, but for others, a longer period of time is necessary.
'Taking a day at home between when you’re away and when you’re back to work can be really helpful in smoothing that transition.' - Aaron Schat, professor, Human Resources/Management, McMaster University
Another aspect of transitioning... there is some wisdom in some cases of giving yourself a buffer day on either or both ends. So that you’re off work and you have a day where you’re preparing for your vacation. As well—and probably more important—when you get back [to make sure] that you’re not running jetlag and so forth and need to start work the following day. Taking a day at home between when you’re away and when you’re back to work can be really helpful in smoothing that transition.