7 Ways to Take Time Off Without Losing Your Mind

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: May 8, 2013

Sometimes Vacation is More Stressful Than Work

The holiday season is filled with stress. Family gatherings, crowded shopping malls and 24/7 Christmas music on the radio are just the tip of the iceberg. But the one thing that should combat this stress -- lots of time off from work between Thanksgiving and Christmas -- has the potential to be even more stressful than being at the office. 

It's no secret the economy hasn't been stellar the last few years. That has led to many layoffs, which has resulted in surviving employees wearing many more hats and doing jobs that didn't used to be theirs. That's why a week off is nice in theory, but in reality it often means you spend the week(s) before your vacation cramming in two weeks of work. And even when you're off, you're likely checking email from your phone and trouble-shooting when the skeleton staff can't solve the problem on their own.

Vacations are supposed to relieve stress and recharge your batteries, but when you don’t properly prepare for them they can do just the opposite. How do you get all of the health benefits of a vacation, without stress coming along and ruining everything? This article explores seven vacation traps to avoid.

Trap #7: The Last-Minute Scramble

For many of us, the thought of having to "get our house in order" before leaving for vacation is overwhelming. But according to Peggy Duncan, personal productivity expert and author of Get Organized at Work and Make Work Easy, you can completely eradicate this stress by developing good everyday habits.

"It makes no sense to work in clutter, then attempt to clean up that clutter when you go on vacation," she said. "Instead, it's important to develop clear organizational systems. If you work every day as if you’re going on vacation, preparing for vacation shouldn't be stressful."

Trap #6: Bad Timing

The adage "timing is everything" holds particularly true when it comes to vacations.

If you work in an industry that has busy times, don’t choose the most hectic time of year to go on vacation. Similarly, don’t choose to take time off the week your organization has a company retreat, when your department has a big presentation to give, or when you are in the middle of important negotiations with a client. 

You might not get your ideal vacation week, but at least if you choose to go on vacation during your company's downtime, you can actually enjoy your time off as opposed to taking a half-hearted vacation that isn't really a vacation at all.

Trap #5: Pre-Vacation Slacking

Your trip to Hawaii is so close you can smell the coconuts. According to business efficiency consultant Andrew Jensen, it’s important not to give into the temptation of slacking off the days and weeks prior to your vacation.

"Be sure to wrap up any important projects, and make sure all deadlines have been met," he said. "Remember, you have to return to work eventually, and forcing yourself to stay dedicated before you leave can eventually make your first day back all the smoother."

You’ll have plenty of time to relax once you’re out of the office, so make the most of your time at work before you leave to avoid tying up loose ends while you should be sipping Mai Tais on the beach.

Trap #4: Poor Planning

As great as it would be if you could press the "hold" button while you were out on vacation, that’s not the way the business world works. Life will go on without you. Make sure it goes on as smoothly as possible by creating a list of what needs to be handled during your absence, and who will handle it.

Duncan suggests creating systems for regular tasks, and clearly documenting those systems so those in charge during your absence will know exactly what to do, and how to do it. It's also a good idea to leave a sort of FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) for common problems that arise in the course of your job, so the people handling things in your absence will have something to refer to before they resort to bothering you with a phone call.

Trap #3: Not Keeping Everyone in the Loop

As freeing as it may seem in theory, taking off without letting others know when you are leaving, where you are going, and when you’ll be returning is a recipe for disaster.

"It’s often best to tell clients and co-workers about your vacation plans more than a few days in advance, as many of them will likely come up with last-minute assignments for you to complete before you depart," said Jensen. He suggested programming your email before you leave to deliver an automatic response when you're gone, so clients and coworkers won’t become alarmed -- or annoyed -- at your failure to provide an immediate response.

Trap #2: Lack of Clear Boundaries

Will you work remotely during your vacation, or will you cut off all communication? That may vary according to your position and comfort level, but both Duncan and Jensen believe it’s important to set boundaries.

"Leave specific instructions about when you're willing to accept contact, and from whom," said Jensen. "If it won’t spoil your vacation, take care of menial work-related tasks when you’re away. Answering emails and returning routine phone calls won’t take you very long, but it can make a huge difference in the amount of work you have to complete upon your return to the office."

Trap #1: Telling the Truth About When You're Coming Back

Planning on returning on Monday? Tell your co-workers you’ll see them on Wednesday.

Both Duncan and Jensen agree that coming back to the office earlier than expected will result in a smoother transition. You’ll be able to take the time to adjust, see what you missed, and gauge your projects and workloads without the pressures of meetings, etc.

"I suggest people plan to come back up to two days earlier than they say," said Duncan. "If you show up two days earlier than expected, you’ll have that time to get caught up."

Work to Make Sure You Can Relax

According to several studies, lack of vacation can be hazardous to your health. The Framingham Heart Study found that women who took a vacation every six years or less were more than eight times more likely to suffer from heart-related illness than women who took at least two vacations per year. Another study, co-authored by individuals at the State University of New York at Oswego and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, showed that middle-aged men at risk for heart disease who did not take at least one vacation per year were 30% more likely to die from a heart-related cause than co-workers who took time off. 

Vacations are supposed to be good for your health, so make sure you get the most out of them by reducing the stress that goes hand-in-hand with lack of preparation. What vacation traps have you fallen into in the past, and what have you done to ensure your vacation is as stress-free as possible?

Why Not Ask for a Raise Before You Take Vacation?

While you're busy checking off that pre-vacation to-do list, why not include "make more money?" But before you ask your boss for that raise, you need to be prepared. And Salary.com can.

The first thing you should do is research, so you're able to come to the table armed with the knowledge of what your job is worth. Use our free Salary Wizard below to find out what's a fair salary for your position. You can enter your location, education level, years of experience and more to find out an appropriate salary range before you negotiate.

Good luck.