Taking a holiday means we get to replenish our resources (that deplete during stressful work periods) and add to our health and wellbeing. Some of the best things about taking a holiday are being able to relax, detach from work, connect with others, have more time to do the things that give us pleasure (and savour this feeling), and have the autonomy to decide what we want to spend our time doing. 

Despite the well-established benefits of holidaying, there’s a chance you returned to work recently and already feel stressed. You might have even noticed a sense of dread prior to your holiday ending and you wouldn’t be alone. A study that looked at the effects of long vacations on employees found that health and wellbeing improved during long holidays, but quickly returned to baseline during the first week back at work. The fact that these positive effects are so quick to fade suggests we need more frequent rest and recovery.

Returning to work, and especially to stressful environments, can make it difficult to prioritise our own health and wellbeing like we might have been able to do when we had three long weeks off. Researchers have demonstrated that when job stress is high, recovery processes are more difficult to use. Anecdotally, I find this so-called “recovery paradox” to be true. As a psychologist, clients regularly report they find it harder to use the strategies that keep them well when they are stressed.

If it’s easier to do the things that “fill your cup” when feeling less stressed, then take advantage of the residual wellbeing from your holiday and start building rest and recovery into your day-to-day routine now. Start small and ditch the all-or-nothing approach. Trying to change too much can lead to disappointment or feelings of failure, while small achievements can help to build confidence.

Perhaps we find it more difficult to prioritise our wellbeing when stressed because balancing work and home commitments can leave us time poor. There’s a tendency to use what little time we have for leisure as an “escape” from work. Activities like watching television can serve as a way to avoid problems and stressors. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with watching a good Netflix series, we need to balance passive activities with ones that provide a sense of mastery. Mastery experiences are engaging, challenging activities that we do well at.

While you’re being creative and flexible about how you use your time away from work (even if it’s just a lunchbreak), experiment with activities that provide a purpose or meaning in life. Recall when you felt your happiest or most satisfied on holiday – What were you doing? Who were you with? What were the qualities you were enacting in that memory or demonstrating as a friend, partner or parent? Connect and reflect on that positive memory to help find out what matters to you and then use the information to guide your actions, big or small.

In addition to being an important component of wellbeing, meaning is a type of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that arises from within us because we internally find the activity to be fun, satisfying, or fulfilling. For example, engaging in creative pursuits like painting can produce a sense of pride and achievement. There’s no need to worry about whether the art sells or other people like your creation (these are forms of extrinsic motivation). With intrinsic motivation, a person is more likely to change their behaviour and then feel motivated to sustain the positive change.

Rather than waiting until your next annual holiday, I encourage you to recharge your batteries more regularly by being intentional with how you use your time away from work. Rest and recovery entail more than just putting up your feet when you leave the office, it’s a proactive process that has the potential to improve your productivity at work and happiness and satisfaction outside of the office.