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Hi there,

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I have a somewhat complicated relationship with vacation. Not to suggest that I don’t love my time off — I assure you, I do. No, the problem I have with vacation is what follows it: a complete return to business as usual (literally and figuratively). 

Whenever I schedule some time off, those “out of office” blocks in my calendar become the be-all, end-all of my existence. I get so absorbed in anticipating vacation that I sometimes forget the fact that I will, most likely, outlive my work email’s vacation auto-reply. But inevitably, time marches inexorably forward, and before I know it, I’m back at work, with even more stuff to do than usual.

Don’t misunderstand me, dear reader: I like love my job!1 But we all need to disconnect sometimes, and I find it so hard to boot back up after a hiatus that sometimes I wonder whether I’m doing something wrong. I even find my stress building while still on vacation, in anticipation of having responsibilities (horrified gasp) to attend to once more. 

What does the research say about the post-vacation blues? Is there something I could be doing to get all the benefits of time off, minus the rude awakening? This is the question we’re looking into in today’s newsletter. We hope you find it useful.

Until next time,
Katie and the vacation-loving team @ TDL
1 Definitely not edited under duress

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Today’s topics 👀
🌴 Lit Review: The Science of PTO
🌊 Deep Dive: Making Your Vacation Count
🌴 The Science of PTO

Vacation only makes us happier temporarily… unless you really let yourself relax. Research has found that the mood boost people get from time off usually disappears when they get back to work. Only the most relaxed vacationers show any mood benefits after returning. (You are invited to take this as a challenge.)

But time off comes with big health benefits. Taking a yearly vacation reduces the overall risk of death by about 20%, and also cuts the risk of heart disease by up to 30%. It also improves our creativity and attention.

It’s crucial to let yourself fully detach from work. Certain sources recommend working just a little while still on vacation, to help reduce the backlog you’ll have to deal with afterward. This may achieve that, but it comes with a cost: vacation is most restorative when we’re able to totally disconnect from work, so logging on while you’re away may be denying yourself the full benefits of PTO.

Stress about going back to work can sabotage our vacation bliss. Research has found that happiness peaks halfway through vacation, no matter how long it is. After the midway point, our minds start to wander back to emails and meetings, which undermines our ability to enjoy the time off.
🌊 Making Your Vacation Count

To sum up, the post-vacation blues are completely normal, and it’s hard to avoid them entirely. But the benefits of taking time off far outweigh the pain of settling back into your normal routine — and you can take steps to maximize the rejuvenating power of going on vacation. Here are some evidence-based tips for doing so.

Revel in the planning process
Research shows that simply planning a holiday makes people feel happier, and can boost their well-being for weeks. So don’t treat trip planning as a means to an end. Instead, set aside some time in advance of your trip to start planning, and make it exciting: invite your travel compadres to share a bottle of wine while you research things to do.

Alternate excitement with relaxation
Yes, vacation is an opportunity to explore — but it’s also, perhaps more importantly, an opportunity to relax. Vacationers who report being “very relaxed” while away actually do feel happier when they get back to work, and relaxation predicts improvements to employees’ health and wellness. That’s not to say you shouldn't go on adventures while you’re away — just balance out the stimulation with some restorative downtime.

Set up a transition plan before you leave
We’ve established that it is not productive to work during your vacation. What you can do instead is exercise control over your return: set up a clear plan for how you’ll navigate the transition back to the office (or the desk in your bedroom). Consider blocking off your calendar to focus on solo work, meeting with your manager to align on priorities for when you get back, and scheduling some time to catch up with your teammates over coffee (a nice break from work and something you’ll be able to look forward to).

A graph labelled
After a vacation, people showed better attentional capacities and reflective abilities. Adapted from: Packer, J. (2021). Taking a break: exploring the restorative benefits of short breaks and vacations. Annals of Tourism Research Empirical Insights, 2(1), 100006.
The Hedonic Treadmill
Forking over huge heaps of cash for an over-the-top getaway probably won’t make you feel happier than a laid-back sojourn somewhere more modest, or even a carefully planned staycation. The hedonic treadmill can help explain why some of us feel the need to splurge on more and more lavish retreats.
Opportunities in behavioral science

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