Here’s how to actually recharge, according to experts.

Person relaxing by water on vacation
Credit: Fokke Baarssen/EyeEm/Getty Images

While taking a vacation may seem like an obvious cure-all when you’re suffering from burnout (an actual syndrome as of last month), stress relief doesn’t necessary come easily for everyone. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2018 Work and Well-Being Survey of 1,512 U.S. adults revealed how factors like work stress and phone addictions can truncate feelings of relaxation during vacations.

In the research, 21 percent of respondents reported feeling tense or stressed while out of office, 28 percent confessed to working more than they thought they would while away, and 42 percent said they dread returning to work once their time off ends. In addition to the things we’re able to control — like limiting screen time or being more mindful — David W. Ballard, who heads APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence, points out the benefits of time off can be short-lived if the work environment people return to is problematic. Fortunately, there are ways you can set yourself up better not just to relax on vacation but also to carry those stress-relief benefits back to the office with you.

Here are five expert tips to getting rid of burnout symptoms with a vacation so you can head back to work energized and happier.

Actually use your vacation days.

The U.S. Travel Association found that, at the end of 2017, 52 percent of Americans had unused vacation days, which amounted to a whopping 705 million unused days. Of these, 212 million were forfeited completely, equaling $62.2 billion in lost benefits. Aside from the financial hit you take when you don’t use your PTO, you’re probably hindering your productivity.

According to Daniel Kirsch, PhD, president of the American Institute of Stress, “to charge the brain, you have to un-plug it.” A big part of this is monitoring your work-life balance, and Dr. Kirsch even recommends taking at least one full day off from work every week.

“Paradoxically, work is more productive when this routine is followed, even though, and actually because you’re working fewer hours,” he explained to Travel + Leisure. “It’s like when you misplace your keys or phone and frantically look for them, it’s hard to remember where they are. But soon after you relax and let it go, it automatically bubbles up to your consciousness and you visualize where you left it.”

Of course, not everyone’s job situation allows for this level of flexibility, but overall, Kirsch advises taking at least four vacations a year, “even if some are just long three- to four- day weekends with a longer vacation in the summer and over the winter holidays.”

Set an automatic OOO notification.

Kirsch recommends setting an auto-reply email “so everyone knows you’re unreachable.” Of course, before you turn this setting on, you should make sure your main work responsibilities are accounted for while you’re away. This way, you’re limiting the amount of potential work interruptions or feelings of stress during your trip.

“Before you head off on your vacation, ensure that priority tasks have been completed or delegated as needed so that you can switch off with a clear conscience,” Mathias Mikkelsen, CEO and co-founder of Memory (the company behind the productivity tool, Timely), told T+L. “In order to reap the mental health benefits of taking time off, you’ll need to be able to fully unplug without guilt or concern about your absence. One way to facilitate this is assigning someone you trust from your team to be your point of contact while you’re away, empowering them to reach out in case of emergency. Knowing that someone capable and trustworthy is managing your workload while you’re away will give you peace of mind to properly relax.”

Get outside while you're away.

Studies have shown a link between nature and positive changes in mood — like increased energy and happiness levels — and Mikkelsen’s Scandinavian culture capitalizes on both the researched and anecdotal evidence. Scandinavia, which is comprised of countries consistently ranked among the happiest in the world, has a leg up on the U.S. when it comes to work-life balance.

“A big part of the Scandinavian lifestyle is friluftsliv, literally translating to ‘free-air-living,’ which describes the practice of spending time in nature for mental and spiritual well being,” he said. “There’s nothing like the vastness and beauty of nature to calm your brain, put your work duties into perspective, and remind you to savor the present moment.”

The American Heart Association also encourages people to spend time outside to reduce stress and anxiety, encouraging people to “get back into nature” because our brains crave it. “The modern way we live has changed radically from life in the savanna, but our brains have mostly stayed the same,” a paper for the organization reads. “We still have a deep connection with nature, and research shows that if we don’t nourish that bond despite our technological advancements, we may suffer in many ways.”

Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness, or the practice of focusing solely on the present moment, is a growing trend for the relaxation benefits it offers. With mindfulness, people are encouraged to put down their devices and acknowledge each thought and sense as it arises.

“The past is over, the future is not here yet, so be present. When unwanted thoughts jump into your mind don’t entertain them, look around instead,” Kirsch said. “Curiosity may have killed the cat, but have you ever noticed how it stops an hysterical baby? Give a baby a rattle and watch him or her go from screaming to smiling in an instant. Whether it’s an urban, beach, or mountain vacation, whatever the season, get your head out of the phone and bask your senses in your surroundings.”

Use your trip to relax once you’re back at work.

In APA’s 2018 Work and Well-Being Survey, 24 percent of respondents reported losing the mental health benefits of their vacation immediately once they got back to work, with 40 percent saying the positive effects like more energy and less stress lasted just a few days. While the physical trip may be over, Kirsch wants people to carry their experiences with them as long as possible.

“By being [present] when you’re there, you will also make memories you can use to take a quick break when you’re back to work, helping to resist burnout,” he said. “You can build and strengthen such memories by thinking about a fun, preferably calm moment from your vacation and replaying it in your mind with closed eyes while taking a few deep breaths. Practicing this a few times will reinforce the memory, keeping it more vivid in your mind and available to use as a tool when you need it. So at the first sense you have of a stressor affecting you (e.g., you feel startled or anxious or angry), close your eyes, go back to that memory while taking a few deep breaths, and you will feel calmer and ready to proceed in handling your stressor.”

If you need more help relaxing once you’re back at work, check out the free resources available on The American Institute of Stress’ website. Or, maybe start planning your next vacation so you can stockpile more of those serene memories — because, as Kirsch concluded, "Your mental resilience depends on it."