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Beat Those Post-Vacation Blues

It’s not every workplace issue that earns the attention of the Pope, but post-vacation blues are such a common malady, even His Holiness has had something to say on the matter. "I try to imagine what passes through the spirit of one who comes back after a period of relaxation, perhaps long desired and now already over," the late Pope John Paul II once said, adding that some people often dread "daily reality, with its concreteness, its problems, its heaviness."

The Pope’s words ring true for people who have ever returned from a vacation and found themselves battling depression, anxiety and a general lack of enthusiasm for work. Those feelings are only amplified by the prospect of facing a swarm of unanswered e-mails and projects that demand immediate attention, even though your mind may be a thousand miles away on a warm beach. When asked how they feel about returning to work after vacation, Performance and Profits readers overwhelmingly chose “stressed” in our latest monthly poll.

“Returning to work after vacation is like going to the dentist after you have avoided it for five years,” says Dr. Dan Baker, a psychologist and author of What Happy Companies Know (Prentice-Hall, 2006). In addition to a sense of dread about going back to work, Dr. Baker says that some of the common symptoms of post-vacation blues are increased irritability, a hair-trigger temper and a lack of concentration.

Robin Nolan, a consultant at McDavid Public Relations, has another term for post-vacation blues: fun withdrawal. “I once went on a yacht trip to the Bahamas where some friends and I snorkeled, went diving and generally acted as if we didn’t have a care in the world,” says Nolan. “Coming back to life, responsibility and the ordinary was just downright depressing. It was like a hangover, a sick-to-your-stomach feeling. One of my friends called it fun withdrawal, and we all suffered and lamented about it.”

The residual effects from a vacation fade as quickly as a summertime tan, according to a survey of American workers conducted by international airline Air New Zealand. More than half of the survey’s respondents reported that within their first three days back, they already felt as if they had never been on vacation and that their stress levels were as high as ever. “For many, it take a few days to emotionally leave the office, and then you start entering the office a couple days before you return,” says Don Schmincke, a business consultant and author of The Code of the Executive (Plume, 2000). “So a week vacation gives you only a couple days of relaxation.”

It’s not all bad news, however. The majority of the Air New Zealand survey respondents also said that vacations have physical and psychological health benefits, and that extended time off results in as much as a 25 % increase in overall productivity. Those sentiments are echoed in the Performance and Profits poll, with “enthusiastic and ready to get back to work” the second most popular choice among respondents.

Even if you’re not among those who come back from vacation refreshed and reenergized, there are some practical steps you can take to help ward off the post-vacation blues:

• Schedule your return to give yourself some reentry time. “Plan your vacation so that you return one day before you told everybody you would,” says Jeff Davidson, author of Breathing Space: Living and Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society (Mastermedia, 1999). A decompression period will allow you to acclimate yourself to the 9-to-5 world and help minimize disorienting feelings. Returning to work on a Tuesday can also be helpful; not only do you avoid the normally hectic atmosphere of a Monday, but you also have a shorter week.

• Start planning your next vacation right away. Planning a vacation often is almost as much fun as taking one, says Dr. Baker, and can help provide a light at the end of the tunnel. “I'm looking forward to my third vacation this year, in September, and I already have a couple of destinations in mind for February '07,” says Craig Bloomfield, vice president of public relations at money management firm Jones Lang Lasalle.

• Call a co-worker before you return. It’s never fun to think of work while you’re on vacation, but getting a heads-up on new situations or projects that arose while you were away lets you know what to expect when you get back.

• Bring back a memento and keep it on your desk, recommends Debbie Mandel, a stress-management specialist and author of Turn On Your Inner Light  (Busy Bee Group,  2003).

If none of those tips seems to work, you might want to keep in mind the Pope’s suggestion for coping with the post-vacation doldrums. "All this can also be depressing, but there's an antidote against depression," the Holy Father said. "Keep in your heart a great ideal of authentic values which give sense to your own life." It might not be as much fun as a day at the beach, but it’s good advice.