how to avoid post-vacation stress once you’re back from vacation

Your vacation was relaxing, but now you’re back at work and staring at a mountain of emails and work that piled up while you were away. How can you attack the chaos without undoing all the benefits of your vacation?

1. Start by organizing your work space. If you came back to papers piled up everywhere, take a few minutes to sort through it – or at least put it all in a neat stack. It’s hard to keep your blood pressure low and avoid feeling harried when there’s a visual representation right in front of how much work has piled up. Even cursorily organizing the space will help.

2. Use your out-of-office message smartly. Most people going on vacation set their out-of-office message to say something like, “I’ll be back on August 17 and will reply to you then.” But that creates pressure for you to respond to everyone the day you return. Instead, try giving yourself the buffer of an extra day or two, by using a message that says something like, “I’m currently on vacation but will reply to you by August 20” (insert date several days after you return).

3. Don’t read your emails chronologically. Ever seen the person who comes back from vacation, starts responding to emails, and is weighing in on questions from two weeks ago that have already been answered? Don’t be that person. Sort your emails by sender or by subject, so that you can see the entire thread before you jump in – which can prevent you from spending time on things that have already been resolved or from reigniting a conversation that’s already moved on to a new issue.

4. Get clear on your priorities. You probably don’t need to process your entire backlog on your first day back. There’s no reason that you can’t spread out the backlog over a longer period of time, yet people often come back feeling like they must get caught up instantly. Instead, figure out what’s most important for you to accomplish today and this week, and what can wait. You might consider asking your team members to each send you an email summarizing (with bullet points, not lengthy narrative) the key things you need to know from while you were out, and a list of anything they’re waiting on from you, prioritized.

5. Don’t stay late. You took vacation for a reason – to unwind, disconnect from work, and refresh yourself. If you make up for the time away by working late every night once you’re back, you’re going to undo all those benefits. Vow to leave on time your first week back.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Rebecca*

    I rely so much on finding related messages, or the search bar to find key words in all the emails related to a certain item, no matter how many unread messages I have when I return from time off. Really helps to reduce the back to work email landslide!

  2. BRR*

    As part of #3, I always categorize my emails and make temporary folders. Industry list serves, news alerts, weekly events. By separating out the fluff, I can more easily see the stuff I need to see and come back to the fluff later.

  3. Workfromhome*

    I would go even farther than is suggested with the Out Of Office email (and also voice mail don’t forget the choice mail).
    I have used this type of thing on the last couple vacations and it was very successful:
    “I am on vacation from X to XX. I will have no access to email or voicemail during this time.
    If you require immediate assistance please contact XXXX
    If you require a response directly from me please resend your email on or after XX .

    I turn the feature on in my voice mail that will not allow a message to be left
    I have my Outlook send ALL my email to vacation folder so that it doesn’t show up on my phone wile I am away to distract me but I can still get at it if its absolutely positively necessary.

    When I return my inbox is clean. I can scan through the vacation folder at my leisure in case there is any valuable information. If someone really wants a response they will send a new email after I return and I can deal with my inbox just like its any other day rather than having the stress of thinking someone has been waiting for an answer for a week.

    1. TCO*

      Asking people to re-send e-mails or call me again rather than leaving a voicemail wouldn’t go over well in my workplace. My role involves a certain level of internal and external client service (and I’m naturally a service-minded person), so making people go to extra lengths to reach me isn’t acceptable. It’s completely fine for me to be on vacation and not answer e-mail, but the burden is on me, not my clients/coworkers, to respond when I get back.

      But if this is okay in your workplace, then great. It’s definitely a know-your-environment kind of thing.

      1. Ad Astra*

        If I’m a client, I’m not going to bother re-sending an email. If I’m a coworker, I might, but it still feels like the onus should be on the vacationer to respond when she returns. The email is right there in your folder.

        1. Koko*

          I agree – don’t make me set up a reminder in my calendar for when you’re back from vacation to contact you again. I can’t be keep tracking track of every coworkers’ vacation dates and managing their workflow for them. I sent the request – the ball is in your court – it’s your job to respond.

        2. Workfromhome*

          Most of the emails I get from clients are asking for information, to solve a problem or create a report. Most of these tasks are something they want in hours or days not weeks. If they have a problem that needs solving immediately they should contact the alternate people I list. If its something that they MUST have me deal with even if they have to wait a week or more then re sending the email makes sure the request is at the top of the pile and doesn’t require me paging through 100s of emails or trying to respond to some issue that they contacted the alternate and is already resolved.

          It may not work at every company but let me say this:Many people at my work were skeptical. They said Oh you can’t do that. Guess what clients easily accepted it and I got no complaints. As long as you give people an option for immediate help most people have told me that they would rather send another email than wait for days after you return to wade though 1000s of emails.

    2. Num Lock*

      I’ve gotten this type of OOO back and it’s never bothered me–but usually what I’m sending is just information anyway. If I do need a response from that person, it’s easy to set up a reminder on the OOO reply to ping me on a date for resending.

      One thing I wish people would be more considerate of is the blanket email. I hate coming back and deleting multiple roll call emails for each day I was gone. Or reading about the pie that was in the breakroom on Monday that generated 5 “thank you you’re such a good cook BAKERPERSON!!!!!” reply alls. Outlook automatically highlights folks that will respond with autoreplies in your organization and it takes just one click to remove that person from the message! This isn’t a problem for my organization as a whole, just my 25-person office… but it really does add up.

  4. Sprocket*

    It’s also important to have everything squared up before you leave so that you’re not thrown into chaos coming back. I made that mistake once. Never again!!

    1. AFT123*

      This is so true – I’ve found that even taking it a step further has been really helpful. I will get everything squared up, and then do two more things: 1. Email my neediest clients/coworkers to let them know when I’ll be out and who they can contact in my absence and CC that person on the email so everyone has each other’s info. 2. Compile a brief list of possible scenarios that could come up with info on where to find background info if needed and what to do if it comes up (Example: Client ABC has a contract out for signature, I let her know that I’ll be gone and gave her your info, you may see this come in, please forward to legal and file. Or – Client xyz has been having a ton of problems with product xyz and we’ve already looped in the technical resources but there is a chance of this getting escalated to you while I’m out)

  5. some1*

    For #3, it’s not necessarily that you can’t read your emails chronilogically, but do it intelligently. Turn on the conversation feature, scan all your emails for emails in the same thread, or read everything before you reply to anything.

    That being said, I have a coworker who does this after being away from his email for more than an hour (replies to the first of several emails after the question has been answered/settled/decided, etc)

    1. themmases*

      Yes, definitely! I have come back from vacation to threads where I had to sit on my hands until I read to the end, because it was all a lot of back and forth about something I could have answered in 30 seconds. But when I read to the end, I would often find that they did eventually figure it out and hey, it’s the hard-won knowledge that sticks with us! Now they’ll know, and I’ll know to relax, for next time.

      Related to that, it can be a good idea not to respond to stuff right away even when you’re pretty sure you’ve read the whole thread. I like to go through, flag each thread that requires follow-up from me, then work on them all once I’ve reviewed everything. Just because your response to the thread you read is still relevant, doesn’t mean there isn’t something more urgent just below it.

      I always like to combine folders and sorting by sender. Then I can immediately file the stuff I know I don’t need to personally read and clean out emails several at a time until the real list looks more manageable.

  6. AFT123*

    This is a great list! I especially appreciate comment #3 – this is something I used to struggle with and it makes a lot more sense to sort by subject or sender. I also love Workfromhome’s advice above about having all emails go into a dedicated folder while you’re out. Even though the tip about asking senders to re-send once you’re back would never fly in my organization, having all emails in a separate folder I think would be really helpful for me.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Yes! Even when traveling for work, I try to keep at least the first morning back free to decompress and figure out what happened while I was gone.

  7. LQ*

    I try to set an amount of time and burn through messages as fast as possible. It is either something I need to respond to or something I don’t. I flag it if I need to respond. Everything else gets dealt with, (deleted or marked as read) as fast as possible. Then I loop back and can just work on the much smaller number that I really need to deal with after that. (I sometimes also do this on vacation, just deal or ignore and flag the deal, stuff the rest in a box in case I need it later (archive folder) when I get back I only have the messages I need to deal with.)

    1. Noah*

      That’s pretty much what I do. Work through things in chronological order. Flagging items that I may need to respond to, deleting obvious junk I don’t need, and reading and archiving other stuff. Once I’ve done that I can go back and start responding to the flagged messages.

  8. Elizabeth West*

    3. Don’t read your emails chronologically.
    Heh heh, this one almost got me when I came back from my autumn holiday; I started reading from the bottom up and nearly replied to several emails that were subsequently taken care of by my boss (who covered me). Of course, that was because……

    5. Don’t stay late.
    I could not do this because I was exhausted from airport nightmares of missed flights and hotel non-sleep. I only worked for three hours the day I got back before I had to concede defeat. I learned my lesson next trip and built in a day at the end to relax and ease back into my time zone. But I had such a comfy flight, I ended up coming in later anyway. :D

  9. HM in Atlanta*

    “I’m currently on vacation but will reply to you by August 20”

    This has completely fixed a frustration I have with out of office!

  10. Rebecca*

    I’ve started scheduling a “buffer” day after I’ve been on vacation. A day when I’m not scheduled to be in the office (but could check emails from home if I needed to). I can get unpacked, do laundry, get caught up on “home” stuff so that I’m not feeling overwhelmed when I am back at the office.

    1. Lanya*

      This is the best – I have started adding a buffer day as well.

      Even better, if I can do laundry at my vacation spot a day or two before I leave, I try to come home with clean clothes to cut out an extra chore once I’m back home.

  11. Case of the Mondays*

    With my boss’s approval, I set my out of office up one day early and have it go one day late. If I’m out the 3rd to the 7th for example it will say I’m OOO from the 2nd to the 8th. Then, even though I’m working the 2nd and the 8th there is no expectation for a reply. On the 8th it gives me time to sort through everything and get caught up. On the 2nd it means I won’t be stuck late replying to everyone that emailed me that day that doesn’t know I’m leaving for a week the next day.

    1. RO*

      That is the same thing I do. The only downside is that everyone who may have seen me now calls to remind me that my out of office is still on.

  12. Partly Cloudy*

    At my old job, if I took a week off and was totally unplugged (i.e. a cruise), I’d spend the Saturday I got back at the office for a solid 5 or 6 hours, catching up on the prior week. On one hand, it was amazing how much I could get done when no one else was around (no interruptions). On the other hand, it SUCKED. A lot. And if it was the type of vacation that I had access to email, phone, etc. I would always work a least a little bit each day to make the return less painful.

    At my new job, I’ll be taking my first week-long vacation in October. I’m looking forward to doing things differently.

  13. AvonLady Barksdale*

    How timely for me! I just got back from a week off during which I completely unplugged and only briefly glanced at work emails while traveling on Saturday. Mondays here are generally full of internal meetings, which kind of helped me ease in, oddly enough.

    The weird thing was that I ended up having to make revisions on something unexpectedly, and I was completely blocked. I couldn’t get myself to do ANYTHING on the project at all, so after about 30 minutes of slogging, I just gave up and ate chocolate, then I went back to it first thing this morning and got it done. So much better for the psyche, giving myself permission to leave it.

  14. LookyLou*

    I wish my workaholic supervisor could read this – only once in her life did she take an unplugged vacation and she was a different person when she came back. Rather than working through breaks and staying late she would take her breaks and leave with everyone else… it lasted for a week probably.

    Now when she takes vacations she is constantly emailing and calling about issues that she doesn’t need to be involved in. Not only does it stress her out more but it stresses us out and probably her family as well. She then works ridiculous overtime hours the week before and the week after… instead of working 9am – 5pm she works 8am-2am!!! She will refuse to take any breaks (which makes us look like slackers) and insists on having everything tackled within the first 24 hours of being back.

    She sets such a standard that everyone else is stressed to the max by not being able to keep up. She thinks that because she is willing to work like a lunatic that everyone else is. I won’t even touch what happened after my last vacation when I took my full lunch on my first day back… or when I didn’t respond to every single email over a 2 week period that morning… or even when I clocked out at 5pm that day to head home.

  15. Dr. Doll*

    So I am about to go on sabbatical for fall term — O blessed! — and I’m pondering how to handle email. Of course I’ll have an OOO message to direct people to others who can help them. But what do *I* do with the actual email?

    I knew one faculty member whose OOO message straight up said, “I’m on sabbatical and deleting all emails. If you really need something from me, email again after [date].” I found this both arrogant and tremendously appealing. At least it was honest!


    1. hermit crab*

      Maybe set up some inbox rules, so that (for example) all the campus updates get automatically deleted, emails sent to lists that you actually care about go into a folder in case you want to read them later, etc. That way emails that actually get sent to you, personally, still hit your inbox so that you can read them when you have a chance, but they’re not hidden under mountains of unnecessary stuff.

    2. Jillociraptor*

      Honestly, I think it’s kind of brilliant for a longer leave. When my colleagues have been on parenting leaves, they have often designated a person (sometimes me) to college key updates while they’re gone. That person keeps track of any critical organizational updates or emails/situations the colleague will definitely need context on when they return, stuff like that, but it ends up coming back to them in a much more structured, clear format that they can actually take action on.

      For a one or two week vacation is seems like a little much, though.

    3. AcademiaNut*

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone abandon their email or go off grid during a sabbatical – only for vacations or medical leave. It’s not just admin stuff that comes through email – you’d also be abandoning all communication regarding research, student supervision, grants and funding, and publications.

      I would go with a form reply email for any administrative requests saying that you’re on sabbatical until X, and with a list of contacts for different subjects, but research and grant related emails would have to be responded to.

    4. Wanna-Alp*

      I think it’s considerate to let people know where they stand with regards to an email response, as well as providing you with some kind of a mechanism to not get overwhelmed with the volume.

      If it were me, I’d put something in the OOO message that says that if you really need something from me and you want me to deal with it in , then put CHOCOLATE in the header of the email so I can filter it when I get back from the 1000s of emails that will await.

      (Asking a little extra effort should weed out the people who want responses soon, and keep in those who still need a response afterwards, but it’s not too much effort for them. It has the added bonus of letting them understand just how big a box you’re going to get through, as well as a rough timescale for when they can expect a response.)

      I reckon this way you would get a most manageable amount of chocolate.

      Afterwards, you could filter out the chocolate into one folder, and the rest into another where you can retrieve anything that is useful at your leisure, leaving the rest of your inbox uncluttered and accessible.

      1. Wanna-Alp*

        Oops, it ate some of my comment.

        I meant to say “… and you want me to deal with it in [January, or whichever month follows your sabbatical end]”.

Comments are closed.