Remember the old days when vacation meant time away from the office? I mean really away. All we had was mere telephones; no pagers, cell phones or smart phones. Usually, there was no way for people to reach us and it was our choice whether we contacted the office. Perhaps we even vacationed in a place that did not have access to phones, like camp grounds or cruises. Now, thanks to technological advances, we bring the office with us on vacation – and it’s taking a toll.

Vacation is an interesting concept here in the US. Compared to most other industrialized countries, we have little as part of our work benefits. On one extreme there is France, with up to seven weeks vacation annually. In the US and Canada, 10 days is standard (but not required in the US). In the US, those 10 days are the typical allotment for those starting their careers, in addition to our eight national holidays. As we climb the corporate ladder, or change organizations, we earn and/or negotiate more annual vacation time – and then we don’t use it! It seems the more responsibility we have in an organization, the less likely we are to take the time allotted. Despite all the research done during the past few decades indicating how necessary it is for us to relax a few times each year, many employees “bank” their vacation time. In response, some organizations require employees to use their vacation time each year.

Yet, a Wall Street Journal article by Melinda Beck states that even when we are on vacation, we are not relaxing. did a survey of 1,530 people and found only 53% of respondents returned from vacation feeling rested. And 30% of respondents state workplace stress bothers them even when they are away. “Others stay so plugged on BlackBerrys and cellphones that colleagues and clients don’t even suspect they’re away,” Beck states.

A sustained, intense level of activity at work is taking a toll on us by keeping our “fight or flight” mechanism on call. Physiologically, some people become addicted to the resulting adrenalin rush. Then, when vacation time rolls around, it is almost as if we are saying to our bodies, “Okay, you can stop now. I don’t need that fight or flight response.” It takes time for the body to reverse what has been sustained for months at a time. Thus, many people are unable to relax on vacation. The idea of sitting on a beach reading may seem appealing, but the actual act of doing so becomes nearly impossible for some. What’s a vacationer to do? If you find it difficult to truly vacation (see definition above), here are a few suggestions from Dr. Michael Elund, a sleep expert and author of “The Power of Rest.”

  • Try something new: Rather than demanding your body suddenly relax because you’re on vacation, learn something new. We recommend that you think about using your personal strengths. If you have an appreciation for beauty and excellence, or curiosity as strengths, vacation in a place where you can tour the countryside, visit museums, or learn a new language. Perhaps you are athletic. Well, engage that skill or talent by learning to surf, ski, or rock climb. The physical aspect has an added bonus of burning off unneeded adrenalin or cortisol (another stress hormone), according to Elund.
  • Build in a buffer: Instead of working right up until you board the plane or get in the car, make time prior to leaving to get organized and ready for your vacation. Likewise, if you can, leave an extra day upon your return before you go back to work. I think this makes sense particularly if you have vacationed in another time zone. Let your body gear up or gear down.
  • Manage expectations: Let those around you know you will be away. Provide guidelines as to what constitutes “an emergency” for contact during your vacation. I have a suggestion, too. Lead by example. If your team sees you taking time away from the office to replenish your strength and spirit, they will likely follow your example. Offer a positive tone when mentioning someone’s pending vacation at team meetings. Ask your employees when they plan to take vacation. Urge them to let others know and to delegate tasks that need to be completed while they are gone. And let the team know that by everyone pitching in while one person is gone, the team can keep running smoothly. In many ways, your employees look to you for permission to take a break from work while on vacation.