How to Actually Take Time Off From Work (Without Guilt & Stress)

Kat Boogaard
August 25, 2021
min read
September 19, 2023
Photo credit
Taking time off from work can sometimes feel like it’s more trouble than it’s worth. These tips can help you disconnect without panic.
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When it comes to taking vacation, there’s a lot of attention on the positives. It's a well-deserved time to disconnect and have fun. To spend some uninterrupted hours with loved ones. To get a break from the hustle and bustle of your daily life and recharge.

But, there’s a flip side to vacations: They’re a lot of work. We’re not just talking about the itinerary-planning and the packing—preparing to take that time away from your job requires a major investment in time, energy, and even stress.

You worry about the responsibilities you’re leaving behind (in fact, 65 percent of Americans worry that something will happen at work while they’re away). You feel a little bit of guilt and shame over asking other people to cover for you. You feel overwhelmed and overworked as you try to wrap up loose ends before signing off.

And those are just the concerns on your end. The rest of your team is bound to feel a little panicked as they figure out the best way to handle your day-to-day work while you’re out.

Your checklist to prepare for stress-free time off

Yikes—taking time off isn’t always the relaxing and breezy “bon voyage” you thought it’d be, right?

Here’s the thing, though: When burnout is now classified as an occupational phenomenon and 64 percent of Americans admit that they feel vacation-deprived, taking time away from your job is crucial.

The good news is that there are some steps you can take to set off on a vacation, without leaving stress and confusion in your wake.

1. Communicate early and often

There will be times when you need to take unexpected and urgent time away—maybe you have a medical issue, a family emergency, or your basement flooded.

But, in circumstances where you do have some advanced notice that you’ll be stepping away (like for a planned vacation or parental leave), it’s helpful and courteous to give your supervisor and your team advanced warning.

If you and your team have shared calendars, block your vacation off on your schedule as soon as you book it. It’s a visual reminder that you’ll be out of touch, and also prevents people from scheduling meetings, presentations, or other important commitments while you’re out.

Beyond that, as your time off approaches (ideally, at least two weeks before you actually sign off), make sure that you announce your upcoming break. Exactly how you do that will depend on your team’s norms, culture, and policies, but a few ideas include:

  • Sending an email heads up with the dates you’ll be out
  • Making a brief announcement in your team meeting
  • Including upcoming PTO dates in your email signature or Slack status as a reminder

Think about it this way: the sooner you let your colleagues know about your vacation, the easier time you’ll have working together to prepare for smooth sailing—rather than dealing with a frantic scramble two days before you leave.

2. Get your priorities in order

“Oh, I’ll get to that once I’m back from vacation.”

Sound familiar? It seems like a reasonable promise to yourself when you’re wrapping up your final days and your brain has already checked out. But, those seemingly innocent words can lead to total overwhelm when you return—not to mention frustration and confusion for your team in your absence.

Rather than pushing everything off for “when you get back,” get your priorities in order to understand what should actually be tackled before you sign off (and what can realistically wait for when you get back in the swing of things).

An Eisenhower Matrix can help you get a better grasp on what you should be focusing on, as well as what you should delegate to your colleagues. It’s a simple four-quadrant matrix that you use to categorize your responsibilities based on importance and urgency.

Draw a square on a piece of paper, split it into four even quadrants, and then label the top axis with “urgent” and “not urgent” and the side with “important” and “not important.” Next, grab your list of tasks (even your current to-do list will work).

Take each task one at a time and put it in the appropriate quadrant. Maybe that presentation is both important and urgent (it goes in the top left square) and that proposal is important but not urgent (it goes in the top right square). Repeat that with all of your tasks until you have the whole list categorized accordingly.

Here’s a peek at what to do once you have your tasks sorted into the matrix:

When preparing for time off can feel like one never-ending list of things to do, this straightforward system will help you get a better understanding of what you should actually be dedicating your time and attention to—as well as what responsibilities are easier to pass off to your coworkers.

3. Set your coworkers up for success with documentation

There are bound to be responsibilities you need to leave to your team members while you’re gone, and the last thing you want is for them to feel like they’re left in the dark about how to get them done. That can lead to errors, wasted time, and even resentment.

That’s the importance of documenting your processes — particularly your standard or repeated ones — before you sign out. Doing so gives other people a helpful resource they can refer to as they handle those tasks themselves rather than fudging their way through them (or worse, needing to bother you while you’re signed off).

Process documentation can sound daunting and formal, especially when the last thing you want is more to do ahead of your vacation. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be complex or a major time-suck. Scribe makes it easy.

Here’s how it works: Sign up for Scribe for free. When you’re about to handle a task that you want to document, hit the “start recording” button. Once you’re done, Scribe will use that recording to automatically generate step-by-step instructions (with screenshots!) for that task.

You’ll get a short link to easily share that how-to guide with your team members, so they know exactly how to handle your to-dos while you’re away. They’re empowered and confident—and you’re left alone to enjoy your vacation. It’s process documentation that’s totally painless.

For guides that need full video, a free video recorder is another option for documentation.

4. Lay some ground rules

To set up the most stress-free time away—for both you and the colleagues you’re leaving behind—it’s important to have some shared expectations for how you’ll handle your absence, particularly with regard to communication.

Some questions to ask yourself and discuss with your team include:

  • Will you be completely out of touch and unreachable during your time off?
  • If not, can people get in touch about emergencies?
  • What constitutes an emergency and what’s the best way for people to contact you in those circumstances?
  • Do you want to be looped in on any conversation that pertains to you? Or, do you only want to be included on emails that are absolutely essential while you’re gone so you don’t have a huge pile to wade through when you get back?

It can feel a little uncomfortable to be that explicit about your expectations, but those honest conversations ensure that you and your team are on the same page.

Beyond that, you and your team should establish some shared norms for dealing with time off, such as:

  • Setting a uniform Slack status (like 🌴) when you’re unreachable, along with a reminder of the dates that you’re out (e.g. “🌴9/1-9/9”)
  • Creating a shared out-of-office autoresponder template that includes the must-have details
  • Choosing a fellow teammate who will serve as the go-to person in your absence

These seemingly simple changes act as a shorthand to reinforce your vacation time — without you needing to issue constant reminders.

5. Provide a final wrap-up

You made it. You’ve laid all the groundwork and it’s finally the day before you sign off and bid your inbox and to-do list adieu in favor of some rest and relaxation.

But, before you turn on your out-of-office message and clean that collection of used coffee mugs off your desk, there’s one more thing you should do to make sure you and your team members are prepared for your time away: send one final recap email.

This is your way of tying up any loose ends before you officially disconnect and ensuring that your coworkers have what they need to pick up the slack while you’re away. This email can include:

  • Reminder of the dates that you’re out
  • Refresher about your communication preferences
  • Information about who the go-to person is while you’re away
  • Breakdown of the tasks you need covered (with links to processes for easy access)

...and of course, a friendly goodbye and plenty of gratitude to your team for stepping in while you take a hard-earned vacation.

Time off from work should be stress-free (not stressful)

A vacation should be many things: restful, relaxing, rejuvenating...the list goes on.

But more often than not, that pause from your work responsibilities can feel like it’s more trouble than it’s worth (which goes a long way in explaining why hundreds of millions of vacation days go unused every year).

The truth is that you deserve and even desperately need that time away from work and preparing to disconnect doesn’t need to instill panic and dread for you or your team. Much like anything else, all it takes is some thoughtful planning and clear communication.

Stress-free vacations start with setting your teammates up for success. Get started with Scribe today.

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