Returning From Vacation

How to Handle Work After a Break

Returning From Vacation - Handling Work After a Break

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Make a smooth transition back into your working routine.

You've had some time off, staying up late, sleeping in, and spending your days relaxing. It was great! However, it's now your first day back at work after your vacation.

You've been in the office only an hour, and you're not sure how you'll survive to the end of the day. You have hundreds of unopened emails, a huge list of phone calls to return, two reports that are overdue, and three meetings to attend. And that's just this morning!

In this article, we'll explore how to ease back into work after a break. We'll look at strategies for coping with your workload, as well as for dealing with the emotional aspects of getting back into your working routine.

Vacation Preparation Strategies

Many of us experience work overload when we return after a break. When this happens, it can cause stress. If possible, try these strategies before you leave on your vacation:

  • Get ahead – Where you can, get ahead with your work and meet as many future commitments as possible before you go.
  • Form a "strategic partnership" – If you have a colleague who's familiar with your work, ask if he or she would be willing to take on some of your workload while you're away. At the very least, perhaps the colleague could handle anything urgent that happens during your absence. In return, offer to do the same during that person's vacation.
  • Delegate – Identify which tasks you can delegate to members of your team. The less you have to do when you return, the easier it will be!
  • Set email and voice mail messages – Don't forget to set an "out of office" auto reply for your email and record a new voice mail message to indicate that you'll be out of the office. If appropriate, explain who will be handling emergencies or other matters when you're gone. (You might also find it useful to set these on your return, so that people who contact you are aware that you're "catching up.")
  • List priorities for your return – Leave yourself a note for when you get back. Identify what you'll need to do immediately when you return, and which projects and tasks can wait until later.

How to Manage Your Workload When You Return

When you return from a vacation, it's often difficult to remember what you were working on before you left, and which tasks or projects were urgent (and which weren't). Here are some tips:

  • Start work early – Whether it's clients calling, colleagues asking how your vacation was, or your boss requesting a project update, you'll probably have lots of interruptions once everyone is in the office.

    So consider going into the office early to give yourself a chance to get organized, and catch-up before everyone else arrives for work. Or, work from home on your first day back so that you can focus on your priorities without office distractions.

  • Get organized – If you didn't leave yourself a note before you left, get organized during your first morning back. Look at your schedule and what you were working on right before you left. Make a To-Do List, and prioritize what you must do first. This will keep you from spending time on tasks that aren't important.

    Our article on Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle will help you determine which tasks are important and which ones can wait.

  • Meet with team members or colleagues – Catch up with team members or colleagues as soon as possible on the morning of your return. Have them tell you about anything important that happened while you were away, and update you on any urgent projects or deadlines. (Don't call these "meetings" – present them as quick, informal chats.)

Emotional Transition Back to Work

Returning to work after a week or two of sleeping in and not keeping a schedule can affect some of us emotionally. Follow these guidelines:

  • Focus on the positive – We have a choice: we can choose to look at the negative aspects of our workload, or we can choose to focus on the positive. The way that we choose to think about work is largely the way that we're going to experience it.

    For instance, imagine that you've returned to find 300 emails waiting for your reply. Yes, it's tempting to feel overwhelmed and angry about the overload.

    But there are probably at least a few positive emails hidden in the long list. Instead of reading each email in frustration, why not make it a game to hunt for the good ones? Take time to process the important emails and organize them as you go along, but expect to find something great, somewhere, in your inbox. This subtle shift may make a world of difference to your attitude.

  • Schedule extra vacation time at home – Ease yourself back into your regular routine by scheduling some days at home before you return to work.

    For example, if you're due to return from your trip on a Sunday, take that Monday or Tuesday off of work, or work half days. Do your laundry, go to the grocery store, and check your email from home. This will allow you to come to work on Wednesday feeling a bit more relaxed. Plus, you'll have a shorter workweek.

    Even doing small things like this can put you in a much better frame of mind for your return to work.

  • Plan something fun – Keep yourself motivated by planning to do something fun at the end of your first week back. Go to your local art museum, take your kids on a fun day trip, or even spend all day in your pajamas, watching movies and reading books. Planning your own fun day for the following weekend will give you something to look forward to.
  • Improve your mood and energy – If you find yourself getting overwhelmed and feeling negative on your first day (or week) back, try these tips:
    • Remind yourself of the meaning and purpose of your work.
    • Increase your energy by walking around your office while you're on the phone.
    • Put a memento or souvenir from your vacation on your desk to remind you of how much fun you had.
    • Take breaks to go outside to get some sunshine and fresh air.
    • Go to lunch with a favorite colleague or friend.
    • Do a good deed for someone in your office.
    • Smile, even if you don't feel like it. This will help you feel better.
    • If you've been away, remind yourself that it was your hard work in this job that meant you could go on vacation in the first place!
    • Start planning your next vacation on your lunch break. This will get you excited about your next trip.

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Reassess Your Goals

One of the biggest advantages of a vacation is that it allows you to return to work with a fresh perspective. Getting away from the stress and demands of your daily workload is like clicking the "Refresh" button on your web browser. You can come back and see clearly where you are, and where you want to go. Here are a few strategies:

  • Reexamine your career – If possible, take an extra day off to review your career. Start by exploring how you feel. Were you anxious and stressed about coming back to work? If so, what stressed you the most? Write down everything that gave you negative feelings about returning to your job.

    If you can't take extra time off, schedule some time over a lunch break, or an evening or weekend, to do this.

  • Figure out what excites you – Which parts of your role do you really enjoy? What really satisfies you about your job? Which parts of your work fit, and don't fit, with your deepest values?

    Our article on Job Crafting teaches you how to design your job around the tasks that really excite you. Also, our article on Working with Purpose helps you look at your work in a new way.

  • Review your goals – Use your fresh perspective to look at the goals you've set. Are these goals still as important to you now as they were when you set them? Also review your priorities in life – our article on the Wheel of Life can help you to find balance in the most important areas of your life.

Key Points

There are many ways that you can ease the transition back into work after a vacation.

Before you leave, delegate tasks, and partner with a colleague to help handle critical parts of your workload. If possible, schedule an extra day off at the end of your vacation to catch up on chores and emails.

When you return, create a prioritized To-Do List, and meet with team members or colleagues to get up-to-date. And plan something fun for the end of your first week back.

Returning from a holiday is also a great time to reassess your work and goals. Identify what you love, and don't love, about your current role, and try to design your job around what's really meaningful to you.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (4)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    This is a great article, particularly at this time of year when alot of people are going on holidays.

    I'm about to go on holidays next week and reading the article before I leave has given me an idea.

    I will make sure I am well organized before I leave as to what work needs to be done upon my return. I will then schedule my first day just as a catch up day for emails before diving into the other work stuff on my second day!

    What ideas do you use when you go on holiday to ensure a smooth transition back?

  • Over a month ago MichaelP wrote
    Zuni, this is great real life advice, as they say...failing to plan is planing to fail, thank you for sharing.

  • Over a month ago zuni wrote
    Hi all,

    Yes, we have all been there. Usually it is a marathon to the finish to get out the door only to return to a mountain of work upon return. There have been times when I wonder if taking the time off is worth it. Getting a break from the routine is definitely worth it and does wonders for your soul.

    How I deal with the inevitable onslaught when I return is to document where I am with assignments, list next steps, and note reference documents and email. I have learned that I cannot trust my memory to remember the details. I use MS Outlook to list all tasks and schedule start times and due dates. Doing this planning upfront allows me to really relax while I am on vacation.

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