Ok, so elaborate vacations aren't exactly happening any time soon, but that doesn't mean you should let your PTO slip through the cracks. Studies show time off can majorly boost your mental health, including your productivity at work, even if it's just for a day or two around the holidays.

But as we've all learned, sometimes the chaos preparing for and returning from PTO can prevent or even undo any relaxation you got out of the office. We caught up with HR pro Madeline Moore for some expert tips on how to get the most out of your well-earned vacay.

Take it away, Madeline!


Part 1: Prepare

- More appropriately: prepare, protect and defend. Just like no one is going to create the life you dream of for you, even your most awesome advocate cannot protect the sanctity of your getaway. It’s up to you! 

Particularly during COVID, I’ve watched many of us (okay, maybe at least one in the mirror) self-sabotage our desperately needed time out of the office. You plan it, you put it on your calendar, it draws near and then, “Oh my, I just couldn’t… There’s so much going on… I just can’t right now.” 

Guess what? If you are waiting for the perfect time to be out of the office, it's not coming. It’s just not. Especially not in a global pandemic. There is always something going on. There is always something unresolved. Sure, there are times unavoidable conflicts arise, but be very sure you’re not just finding a reason it's not a good time, because there will always be a reason. 

- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure you’ve looked ahead on your calendar to be aware of any upcoming deadlines, meetings, etc., and have provided status updates as appropriate. Remind your boss, your peers and your customers of your upcoming plans. Provide them with status updates and alternate point-people as needed. Do your best to let everyone know you’ve thought of everything and hopefully minimize any panicked inquiries once your time away has begun. Over-communicate with your team in advance of departing the office so they know you’ve “got this.” 

- Get that OOO on! This sounds simple, but do not forget to set an out-of-office (OOO) message that clearly states you are out of the office, sets the appropriate expectation about with what frequency (if at all) you will be reviewing messages and provides contact information for others that can assist. 

I like to say something like: “I will be out of the office from (date) to (date) and will not be regularly reviewing emails. If you need immediate assistance, please contact (designated point person). Otherwise, I will return your message on (date).” This is worth a double check. Again, don’t assume that because you put the dates of your vacation on your calendar two months ago that your peers, colleagues or clients are going to know and/or remember as issues crop up. 


Part 2: Relax

- Respect the boundaries you’ve set. When you’ve done all of the above, there is absolutely no reason to panic or obsessively check your phone every 10 minutes. In fact, doing so may confuse your coworkers or clients and actually invite more interruptions. Rest comfortably that you have planned, prepared and communicated. Then enjoy!

- Do it for others. Aside from causing confusion when you’re out of the office and still communicating as frequently (or potentially, even more frequently) as when you’re there, be aware of the impact this can have on others. You may innocently want to assure your team that you are still available or maybe score a few brownie points with the boss who you hope might notice that incredible work ethic, but be sure to look outside yourself. Particularly if you manage others, be mindful of the culture you create and the expectations you set for them when you go and don’t let go.

- Give yourself some different goals. Especially if you battle worry or anxiety about what you may be “missing” while you’re away, and particularly if you are not wired to be idle, make sure you have other exciting things to focus on. Is it a book you’ve been looking forward to reading? A hobby like golf or hiking that you don’t get to do much at home? Setting a goal like a tech-free day to shift your focus? Find something else to fixate on and go all in!

- Disrupt your habits. We are all creatures of habit more than we care to admit. Especially if you’re staying put while logging off, make sure you set some ground rules for yourself. Particularly if you WFH, a day off at home can seem a lot like well, the 534th of March or whatever it is now. Make sure you stay mindful and consciously disrupt some of your habits so you don’t wind up checking email at the kitchen island versus planning your next island vacay. 

- Buddy system. Especially if you are a one-woman show, make sure you have coordinated with someone else who could handle urgent issues while you are out. That could be a boss, a peer, a colleague or some other person who can handle most anything you expect to pop up, or at a minimum, make an appropriate assessment about whether you need to be contacted. If you direct requests while you’re out to this person (via your out-of-office message or otherwise), this can relieve enormous pressure. This should eliminate the pressure to check each and every email and determine what can wait or cannot. 

- Don’t fall victim to a “test” of your work ethic. If you’ve got that sneaking suspicion that someone is presenting non-urgent issues as urgent or non-critical issues as critical just to test your devotion to work, listen to your gut. Unfortunately, there are some workplace cultures that still work this way. Culture matters, so keep reading for some tips if this is your experience. 


Part 3: Return

- Build in a buffer. There is nothing worse than coming back from a nice, relaxing vacation only to feel like you’ve been hit by a bus. Set yourself up for a graceful reentry into the workplace. While spending an extra day at the beach and booking a redeye back Sunday night then Ubering from the airport to work may sound like a good idea after brunch, resist the temptation. Take it from an HR professional, it only takes one occasion of falling asleep at your desk to make an impression, and it's probably not the one you were going for.

- Ease back in as much as possible. One day you’re at a tiki bar, the next you’re at a board meeting and it’s all a bit confusing. If all possible, give yourself a soft landing. There are a few ways to do this. Most importantly, do your best to avoid returning to a day full of meetings with no opportunity to catch up on missed correspondence, check in with colleagues and generally just reacclimate. (I don’t know about you but I usually average four to five meals a day for a few days after returning from vacation.) I’ve seen people do this a few different ways with some success:

  • If you know you’re coming back to a full week, block a few hours the day before (or on your return trip, if possible) to catch up on emails and missed correspondence. Leave your OOO on. You don’t need to respond to everything right at this moment, but it provides the opportunity to catch up and see what you missed, determine what’s already been handled and begin to firm up your priorities for your time back in the office. Essentially, you should feel a little more prepared for what the week ahead may bring. 

  • My life changed a couple years ago when a friend shared this little secret: After an out-of-town vacation, she always takes off the following Monday as well. Genius! Let’s be honest, as women (and many of us, moms) our times away from the office can be less than relaxing. Jumping right back into the madness at the office while suitcases full of dirty laundry sit on your floor for days can pretty quickly squash any newfound joy and perspective you may have brought home. 

  • It’s okay to give yourself a minute to catch up on some household responsibilities before returning to the office. Send the kids to school, crank up the washing machine, head to that grocery store and/or check in on that inbox, as suggested above, if you’d like. Do whatever helps you feel like you can reset and set yourself up for a productive week versus taking your body to work while your heart and head are elsewhere. Give yourself a shot of maintaining that post-vacay glow past day one!

  • If you have the opportunity to be extra-indulgent, block the day of your return and leave that OOO on just a bit longer so that you don’t feel so pressured to respond to every piece of correspondence right away. This can make you feel as if you have a little more time to catch up without the pressure of everyone expecting an immediate response the moment you sit down at your desk. 

  • Again, if you’re able, plan to enjoy a few extra indulgences or schedule alterations in your first days back. Maybe you’re most productive in the morning and therefore ready to hit the office again first thing Monday morning, but you hit a major wall by 2 p.m. If you’ve got the flexibility, hit Starbucks and/or the treadmill. Rome wasn’t built in a day and you’ll probably find yourself more productive again the next morning versus feeling resentful and slightly shocked that you don’t actually live at the Ritz Carlton or have a swan towel awaiting you back home on your bed. 

- Consider the culture. I know, I know. You just wanted some quick bullet points and to-dos, and here I go making it a whole “thing,” but workplace culture is a big deal. If you have a sinking feeling in your stomach every time you leave your office or think about returning, it’s time to get introspective. I’ve had it both ways, and being part of an organization and a team whose values (e.g.: health, rest, family, etc.) are aligned with yours can make all the difference in, well, everything, especially your outlook and approach to work. 

If you dread a return to work or feel like you are discouraged from taking time for yourself and/or from enjoying it, think long and hard about whether you’re happy in your role, your team and your organization. Believe it or not, there actually ARE people who look forward to returning to work after vacation! If you’re not one of them yet, dream a little about what it might take to get there. 


Madeline Moore is a human resources manager for Arvest Bank.


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