Every company I know is trending far behind last year in vacation days taken. Destination weddings postponed. Road trips canceled outright. Jet lag replaced with Zoom fatigue.

Employees are burnt out, and the repercussions are high: increased anxiety, stress, depression, and resentment.

We owe it to ourselves and our coworkers to take a real vacation from work. The destination (or lack thereof) is irrelevant – if we’re encouraging employees to step away from their laptops, we should all swear an oath to leave them alone.

How you treat employees when they’re supposed to be on vacation is a telling indicator of how much you actually value their health and well-being. If you don’t respect an employee’s best interests, you can expect greater disengagement or turnover once the job market rebounds. 

This post is about how you, in the role of vacationer or Manager, can ensure that the sanctity of the vacation is upheld. The end goal is to return from vacation feeling 1) refreshed, 2) recharged, and 3) ready to do great work. Because if your vacation feels more like a “Work From Anywhere” experiment, you’re far more likely to return to work feeling 1) disengaged, 2) bitter, and 3) ready to kick off your next job search.

Here are five tips to ensure that you and your colleagues succeed in taking a real vacation this year:


  1. Provide advance notice to your most frequent collaborators:  

    If your inbox follows the 80/20 principle (80% of your emails come from 20% of the names in your inbox), it’s easy to provide your contacts with advance notice. About two weeks before your vacation, consider adding a “vacation alert” line to your auto signature (in red font) with your scheduled vacation dates. This recurring reminder will provide your contacts with more than enough time to address their dependencies. 

    If you’re so inclined, tell your coworkers about your digital detox aspirations. By declaring your intent, you’ll also deter any unnecessary outreach. Last year I met up with some friends to celebrate Oktoberfest in Munich. My colleagues were well aware that I was changing time zones for the week, and the quality of my decision-making during Oktoberfest would be questionable at best. 

    Get your high impact work done in advance. The last thing you want to do is leave behind a cloud of guilt and loose ends. If there’s something that you didn’t get to, proactively contact the stakeholders and propose an alternative path to keep the momentum going. In every organization, single points of failure are a risk to business continuity. If you’re always the bottleneck, you’re also more likely to be pinged on vacation. 

    If you have already sent important emails that haven’t been replied to yet, send a follow-up note a few days before your vacation starts. You can remind the recipient of your pending vacation and cc your backup on the email for visibility.

  2. Write an effective “out of office” auto-reply:

    I’m not suggesting that you write something memorable on your OOO with the hope of going viral. Unless that’s your goal. What I mean is – be specific. Include the date that you’ll be returning. Provide an alternate contact name and their email address. Customize your auto-reply for internal versus external recipients. Just remember – give a name they can reach, spend your day at the beach.

    Side note – I have not researched this in detail, but am I the only one with a fear of forgetting to turn on your “out of office” and coming back to a giant mess of unresolved issues? I end up sending myself ‘test’ emails just to confirm that my OOO reply worked. I’ve decided to name this fear:
    oooaphobia. There are no search results for it on Google (yet). 

    If you’re encouraging your colleagues to interrupt your vacation by adding URGENT to the subject line, I urge you to think twice before doing so. The flip side to relaxing on vacation has to be opening your inbox and filtering on the word URGENT. Alternatively, you can brainstorm the type of URGENT requests that would likely come in and educate your backup contact on how to handle them. Speaking of which…

  1. Set your “out of office” contact up for success:

    First, beware of “out of office” karma. If you screw your backup contact over by understating the amount of work they’ll have to do to keep you afloat, then shame on you. Your backup shouldn’t have to operate at 200% capacity while you vacation off the grid. It’s not their job to do your full-time job too. 

    In your pre-vacation transition meeting, role play some likely scenarios with your backup. Share examples of the emails that might get forwarded to them. Decide on how you’d like your backup to keep you informed and up to date. For example, do you want them to cc you on everything they action on your behalf, or should they cut down on your email clutter and schedule a debrief meeting for the morning that you return? 

    Thank your backup when you return. Bring them back a magnet or shot glass if they’re into the souvenir thing. Even better, offer to reciprocate the “out of office” favor when it’s their turn for a digital detox. Hopefully karma is already on your side. 

  2. Limit potential work inputs:

    Last year I was vacationing in Mexico, and a guy in a cabana beside me brought his cell phone to the quiet pool. He was wading around in the water when all of a sudden, his phone started pinging. Again, and again. One of those triple texters. So he jumped out of the pool and jogged back to his cabana to investigate the pinging. His partner, reclined on a lounger beside him, looked up and said, “If you keep replying, they’re going to keep sending.” He snapped back, “Well, I already told them that now was a good time for me, so I’m going to be here for a while.” She leaped up from her chair and announced to everyone in earshot that she was going for a walk on the beach – by herself! BAM! Vacation ruined. Moral of the story – turn off notifications on your most invasive apps. 

    If you are bringing your phone on vacation, you can rearrange your home screen so that only your preferred apps are visible. Show some willpower and resist the urge to swipe to the productivity apps. 

  3. If you HAVE to check in with work, set expectations in advance: 

    Was your vacation only approved because you promised to be accessible in case of emergencies? Not ideal, but it happens, especially in smaller organizations. So it’s critical to defend against the slippery slope; otherwise, you will still get dragged into the “while I have you…” non-critical requests. 

    If you need to be accessible, try to limit the incoming requests based on 1) a fixed time duration, and 2) a specific topic worthy of vacation interruption. If you are showing as available on Skype, Slack, or Teams while tending to a legit emergency, prepare yourself for those horrible and intrusive words: “I know you’re on vacation, but…”

In Closing:

If you need the reminder or reassurance – for your health and well-being, it’s time to detach from the work loop and immerse yourself in more self-indulgent loops. But nothing will ever change unless you make a concerted effort to safeguard your vacation time. 

The good news is that you can control your destiny by completing your pre-vacation checklist and sticking to it. We owe it to ourselves and our families to recharge this year – mind, body, and spirit. 

If you’re in front of the whiteboard and ready to disrupt the talent industry, please subscribe, share, and brainstorm new ideas with me.

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Chris Mulhall is a Talent Management Executive and the Founder of Whiteboard Talent. His mission is to challenge the status quo and encourage others to disrupt the Talent industry. Read more about Chris, his comic strips, and his affinity for whiteboards.

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