Vacation is meant to be a time of respite during which you can rest and recharge – but for some, taking a break from work can be more stressful and arduous that going in to the office.
A new survey from CareerBuilder found that 81 percent of managers and 65 percent of full-time employees have taken or plan to take vacation this year, and unfortunately, some might find that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant."
“A vacation can be stressful," Taylor says. "It really depends on the timing of the vacation, the relationship with the boss, your level of savvy in managing your work, and how you communicate. If you want to have a stress-free vacation, before you leave you need to work smart, communicate well, set limits and establish clear boundaries.”
With sufficient preparation and a clear plan — it is possible to take a stress-free vacation from your stressful job. Here’s how.
“When you’re thinking about taking a vacation, consider timing,” Taylor says. “You won’t want to leave in the middle of project or before a big launch.” Find out in advance a mutually agreeable time from your boss so you’re not stressed while away from the office. “Some bosses prefer that you’re away when they’re away, and others prefer that you cover for them or manage in their stead,” she says. Once you plan your vacation, inform your boss of the exact dates that you’ll be away.
“To set yourself up for a stress-free vacation, begin preparing yourself and your team two weeks in advance,” says Meredith Haberfeld, an executive coach. “Two weeks prior to your vacation, begin a comprehensive list of all that will need to be handled in your absence, including potential issues that might arise.” Plan who will be accountable for each area on your list and discuss your plan with your boss to make sure you have his or her support. “You have to put in the time to train your vacation support well enough that you need not worry while you’re out.”
If you have people reporting to you, you should have a second-in-command, says Mary Hladio, a workplace expert and president of Ember Carriers leadership group. “This person should be able to hold down the fort for you while you’re gone — and you can do the same when he or she takes a vacation.” Your second-in-command should take notes for you at important meetings, handle urgent calls or e-mails if you cannot be reached, and make decisions or answer questions on your behalf.
“Tell everyone you work closely with that you’ll be out of the office, and inform key individuals or clients that you are well covered,” Hladio says. Provide them with a name of your second-in-command, or whoever it is that they can go to in your absences. You can even set up e-mail filters, custom ‘out of office’ messages and use email forwarding to help facilitate this process.
If you’re working on a team project, give your teammates ample notice that you’ll be out of the office and ensure that that you’ll get your part done before you go or when you return, Taylor says. “Remember that going on vacation doesn’t exempt you from work.”
Periodically remind your boss about your upcoming vacation. “Give a countdown in e-mails so he or she isn’t surprised or unprepared when you go,” Taylor says.
Then, one day before you leave, set up a meeting with your boss to review who will be handling what in your absence, and to offload all the loose ends; any work you hoped to have finished that is not, any concerns you have about what could arise in your absence, et cetera, Haberfeld says. “Make this offload complete, and don’t hold back, so that at the end of that meeting you can let go of the office and go on vacation responsibly with a clear mind,” she adds. “The more powerfully you do this exercise, the more fully you can enjoy your time off.”
You’ll also want to use this time to establish boundaries, Taylor says. Let your boss know that you only plan to check e-mails from “time to time.” “Be vague! This way you won’t be compelled or feel obligated to check your phone or e-mail all the time. Don’t set yourself up or pin yourself down. Too much information about your availability is bad.” Don’t make yourself too reachable on vacation — but don’t check out completely, either.
“Checking in periodically shows a level of work ethic and dedication that the best talent often has,” Taylor says. “The most successful people in corporate America don’t completely abandon their staff and senior management on vacation. So establish those ground rules, and remember that the clearer you are, the more relaxed you’ll be during this prized, unique time.”
Tell your boss and co-workers how they can reach you in case of emergency — and ask that you not be contacted at all (unless it’s urgent) on the first or last day of your vacation, Hladio says. “If you’re traveling during your time off, those travel days can be stressful enough, especially if you have children with you.” If you feel that you must stay connected while you’re on vacation — limit communication and establish a designated check-in time.
Before you leave the office organize your desk, clear your e-mail and voicemail inboxes, tie up any remaining loose ends (even if that means putting in a little extra time before you go) and make sure your boss knows the plan. You may have to reassure him or her that everything is taken care of, Taylor says.
“Keep in mind that if you take vacation and have a boss who can revert to childlike behavior, he may feel some separation anxiety if you leave the scene without assuring him that things are under control,” she adds. “This may translate into more work. If you have this kind of demanding boss, he or she may want to be assured that all is calm on the home front through a lot of communication, which will keep you quite busy on vacation.”
Try not to think about work.
People often feel compelled to stay connected while they’re away so they bring their laptops to check e-mail or participate in conference calls, Hladio says. “How can one relax and focus on family or friends when you are thinking about an upcoming presentation?”
Haberfeld agrees. “Many don’t know how to set themselves up well for a vacation and therefore don’t get the opportunity to fully disengage, either through staying wired up, available for the office, or just holding on to problems or issues that may arise while you’re out that you fear don’t have the proper person to resolve them well in your absence.”
Try to relax. If you get a call and you’re busy, don’t answer. “When colleagues call you on vacation, it’s usually a knee-jerk reaction,” Hladio says. “If you don’t respond, they’ll probably be able to figure out a solution on their own.”
If checking in periodically gives you peace of mind — do it. But don’t get too absorbed in your work on vacation. We all need some time off. Taking a break from work gives you time to clear your mind and reflect, and it ultimately boosts your productivity upon your return.
“By taking time away from work to unplug and reconnect with other people and things in your life that also make you happy, you actually come back to the workplace recharged and more productive than if you had stayed in the office for the same time period,” Hladio says. “Sometimes when we are away from the day to day we actually find solutions to problems or think of innovative ways for higher performance.”
Use the time to catch up on sleep, read a new book, and spend time with friends or family. “Let your vacation be a stark reminder that you have control over your level of relaxation — and apply that at work when you return,” Taylor says.
Back to work
You’ll need a day or two to decompress, Taylor says. Don’t schedule any meetings the first couple of days — and ask your boss and co-workers to treat your first morning back as if you were still away. Use that time to catch up on messages and settle in.
“Block time on your calendar at the beginning and end of the day so you are not overwhelmed upon returning for the first couple of days,” Hladio adds. “Then meet with your team and boss and get an update on the happenings within the office.”
Take initiative and be proactive in seeking out what you’ve missed. “Make sure you’re filled in on all the information and details of meetings and reports you missed,” Taylor says. “Go to lunch with colleagues so they can bring you up to speed.”
Some of the best thinking comes after a real mental re-set, Haberfeld concludes. Not only do you have a full tank after vacation, but the cleaned slate, fresh perspective and clarity of thought allow for innovative, quality thinking.
“Leverage that state of mind to view your projects from a broader perspective,” Taylor adds. “With a clear head, you may also have the advantage of facing any challenges at work with greater diplomacy, because you’ve had a chance to view situations more philosophically, in a more relaxed environment – and from a distance – literally.”
More from Forbes.com