Vacation from work

How to take a vacation from work (and really unplug!)

Hands up if you’ve been on holiday and, despite swearing that you weren’t going to check email or answer your cell phone, you ended up working some (or, true confessions, MUCH!) of your vacation.

I get it. I’ve been there at times in my career. Now, as a leadership coach, I meet clients who don’t like that they’re always on the clock but need help preventing leadership burnout.

The thing is that very few of us are in positions where things really, truly cannot continue if we’re away for a holiday. The pressure is often from a work culture where “face-time” and working 24/7 is valued as some sort of loyalty orit might be self-induced by some folks who need to feel super important or essential and have problems delegating effectively. Perhaps some others just worry and feel guilty if they’re away on vacation.  We live in a world where, for many, responding to “how are things?” with “oh, I’m super busy” has become a badge of honor.

If you obsess over checking and replying to emails and texts while you’re supposed to be enjoying hard-earned time off, you likely rationalize it in one or more ways:

  • I just need to check that my team is okay
  • They can’t do this without me
  • I can’t really rest and relax if I’m worrying about what’s happening at work
  • This won’t get done if I don’t check on the progress of things
  • I don’t want everyone stressed because I’m on holiday
  • It’ll look bad if I’m not in touch while I’m away
  • If I don’t do a bit now it’ll take forever to catch up when I get back

Unplug from the office

While countless companies profess they support achieving work-life balance and everyone seems to say they want more balance, recent workplace studies indicate over and over that North Americans, in particular, have a hard time taking a break from the office. More than half of us will check in with work at least a couple of times a week from vacation and many others at least daily or even twice a day.

Whether it’s an external or an internal pressure, not being able to get away from work on vacation is not healthy. So why is it so hard to unplug from the corporate world?

After all, from psychologists to neurologists to mental health experts, we hear one message: Our brains need rest to perform better. Taking a break from work (and technology!), getting adequate sleep and enjoying downtime with friends and family isn’t just nice or wishful thinking for busy professionals, it’s critical to our mental and physical health.

Taking a vacation is actually good for your career because, when you really unplug, your time away will be restorative. Science is clear: Giving your brain a break from all the constant demands is not wasteful or selfish! It improves your energy, concentration, and creativity.

As you’re planning this summer’s time off, I challenge you to completely unplug from the office this vacation and every subsequent vacation. As a leader, you can demonstrate this healthy behaviour (perhaps even shifting the corporate culture!) and you can help your staff do the same.

Vacation instead of workation

Here’s how to take a vacation from work instead of a workation:

Plan ahead. Decide when you’re going to take holidays and encourage everyone on your team to submit their vacation planning if they haven’t already done so. Tone is important and if you’re making vacation a priority, your team members shouldn’t feel taking time off is going to have a negative impact on their own careers. Remind everyone that in disconnecting and looking after themselves, they’ll come back to the office renewed and ready to tackle things. Ideally, you and your team members will want to book vacation time for quieter periods at work (not when you’re needed for a grand opening, the launch of a new product or the closing of a big deal) or stagger holidays so that everyone can cover off for everyone else.

Manage expectations. Vacation time is your time, but some people feel pressured to stay connected to the office by a boss who insists on having contact information. You don’t have to give many details about your plans, but you can say that you’ll have limited access to wifi or cell service either because of the hectic pace of your itinerary or because of geography  and that you’re going to be focusing your time on holiday adventures or family and friends. This sets the expectation that you can’t reliably stay in touch (rather than won’t).

Get in the mindset that time away is restorative. Even if you’re in the middle of a massive project, managing a difficult account or swamped with work, you and your team members need vacation time. Perhaps try taking shorter breaks; a few long weekends can be amazingly rejuvenating and easier to cover off (and definitely easier to deal with than burnout!). If you’re the kind of person who has trouble disconnecting from work (rather than someone who has pressure from bosses to be available), shorter stints away might be a way to wean yourself from being available 24/7. Or, when you do have a longer time booked, remind yourself, constantly, of the value of that time to you and the company. Keep reminding yourself you will be even more amazing, if you take a break before diving back in.

Line up your ducks. By that I mean prepare your most reliable coworkers to cover for you and ensure that your team members are ready to cover off for each other, too. Connect with your team in person, with enough time before your holiday that people can talk about priorities, problems, and expectations and those covering for you or others can ask questions. Ask them what they’re concerned about for the time you’ll be away and help them figure out mitigation strategies — you’ll feel better and they’ll feel better. Then follow up with brief, written summaries so people don’t feel they’re left guessing or scrambling.

Delegate authority when you are away. If you are in a leadership or management role, figure out who can make certain decisions while you are away on holiday. Putting a chain of command into place for all but the most critical of emergencies will let you leave things with others to handle. Realistically, other managers or leaders should be able to look after things in your absence and delegating effectively will save you time and your sanity year round. Your second in command should be the only one to text you if there is an absolute, end-of-the-world crisis – and you can describe what would qualify as this kind of crisis. This ensures that you can leave work behind because you can trust that you’ll be contacted in a real emergency and that when you return, these folks will catch you up on everything you need to know.

A week before your vacation time, communicate with key contacts. Remind everyone you regularly work with that you’re going to be on vacation and unreachable from this date to that date. Ask again (last chance!) if they have any questions for you before you leave because you won’t be checking email while you’re away. This sets up the expectation that you are truly going to disconnect for the duration of your vacation. And, it might limit the number of emails you have to sift through upon your return.

Make a list for yourself, ready for your return. Instead of going away and obsessing over what might be waiting for you when you return, make a list. Go over things that are coming up and jot them down. This way, you’ll feel prepared and can leave for your vacation without feeling compelled to check email to stay on top of things. One of the things I’ve taken to doing is completely clearing my desk the day I leave, leaving ONLY that list on it. That’s a reminder for others — they’re less likely to dump a pile of work on your desk if your desk is spotless, and it’s nice to know you’re coming back to a clear desk and a succinct list of things that need your attention.

Email key people your last day before vacation. Remind them that you’re going to be away, but don’t be too specific (don’t tell them which hotel you’re staying in and where to call you!). Set the expectation that you’re going away and you won’t be reachable but then tell them who to contact in your absence:


“Hey, team, just a reminder that I’m leaving tomorrow for my 10-day vacation. I’m NOT going to be checking my work email or voicemail while I’m away, but you can get in touch with Susan for account management issues, Bryan for accounting, or Cheyanne for marketing.”


Remember to let reception and administrative staff know your vacation plans and who is covering for you, too, so that they can handle any calls effectively and aren’t left guessing.

Use technology to your benefit. Put an out-of-office reply on your email so that anyone who emails while you’re gone knows that you are away AND NOT CHECKING EMAILS and who they can contact in your absence. Then record a new voicemail message with the same information on your office phone and work cell phone. Some leaders will build in a day to catch up and settle back into work (their colleagues will know when they return, but other contacts won’t) by saying they will reply to emails and voicemails a day later than their official return-to-work day instead of detailing the dates they are away:


I will be unavailable until August 11. I’m NOT going to be checking my work email or voicemail while I’m away, but you can get in touch with:

Susan at [PHONE] or [EMAIL] for account management issues

Bryan at [PHONE] or [EMAIL] for accounting queries

Cheyanne at [PHONE] or [EMAIL] for marketing assistance”


You can also turn off notifications so that you don’t jump to check or reply to texts or emails while you’re away. You’ll be amazed at how well trained we all are to jump and reply when we hear that device notification! With notifications off and your ringer set to silent, your work phone will not be intruding into your vacation time. You can check your notifications for any emergency issues on YOUR time if you must. Some people even put work-related apps into a special folder so they don’t check them out of habit.

Walk the talk. If you’ve set everything up and told everyone that you’re going to be unavailable during your vacation, don’t contradict yourself. Stay off your email and leave that work phone alone. If you start replying to emails and checking in with everyone then your team members will assume that you’re actually working remotely and available.

Protect your vacation time. Worst case scenario, if you have to check work emails or voicemails while on vacation, do this once a day for a set amount of time so that you don’t lose your time to rest and enjoy downtime. If you check at the end of the day after work hours. This keeps your limited replies to a time that shows you are intentionally responding to urgent issues while you are off work.

Coach’s Questions

When was the last time you were away from work and didn’t have to deal with a single call or email? What’s stopping you from really disconnecting from work? What steps can you take to change this?