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Careers

Annual leave: the weirdly intense stress of booking time off, and how to combat it

Do you find it stressful trying to book and prepare for annual leave? Look this way…

When you’re feeling stressed and overworked, there’s nothing quite like a holiday. Acting a lot like a reset button, it offers us a chance to replenish our energy levels, take a break from our workplace worries, and return to the office with a fresh perspective.

So why are so few of us actually using our full annual leave allowance?

Research from YouGov, commissioned by London Stansted Airport, has revealed that a whopping two out of five Brits are losing out on their paid holiday days – largely because a) they had been unable to find suitable days to take off work, and b) there was nobody to cover their role while they were away. 

Fearing their workload, then, would pile up to almost impossible levels during their absence, they succumbed to the UK’s toxic culture of overtime and put themselves at risk of burnout in the process.

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Avoid burnout and use your annual leave to get some well-deserved rest.

It’s an all too relatable scenario; booking in annual leave often feels like an impossible task. First, you have to go through the calendar and make sure you haven’t picked a day when any of your co-workers are off. Then, you have to submit your request, before sourcing cover – and let’s not forget the necessity of crafting a handover before you saunter off into the sunset, either.

Even once all of this is done, you may find that you end up working longer hours in the run-up to your holiday, just to make sure you get everything is squared away before you go. And this in turn usually sees you start your first day of annual leave after packing in some serious overtime the night before, which usually takes a while to wind down from.

Throw in the overflowing email inbox when you get back and… well, it’s easy to see why some people think a holiday is more trouble than it’s worth sometimes. 

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“We live in a world of constant accessibility where we can be reached 24 hours a day, so many of us find it difficult to step away from the workplace,” says mental health campaigner and TV & radio broadcaster, Neev Spencer.

“Living in a work environment of Teams catch-ups, Zoom calls and WhatsApp groups – it feels like we never stop being ‘pinged’. The level of pressure and responsibility that now falls upon any working person’s life is far greater than it ever was before. 

“It’s not as easy as putting on the ‘out of office’ and slipping off into holiday mode. We now worry about how people will manage without us, too.”

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In terms of maximising relaxation, you should aim for holidays that range somewhere between seven and 11 days long.

“It’s recommended that we should switch off from work every three months to give our mind and bodies a full break,” she says. “Your wellbeing matters massively and it should also matter to your employer – so know your rights.”

Why is planning for annual leave so stressful?

“Trying to coordinate your leave with your colleagues is a mission in itself, whether there are five or 50 of you,” says Spencer.

“If you have an internal role within your organisation, you will be pushed to find a time you’re not actually needed in some way, so to then prepare to be away for a week or more can put huge amounts of stress on an already overworked and tired person. And to be in a position to hand over your work to someone else takes a large amount of planning and preparation, which can be hard to juggle along with your normal workload.”

Does this sharp uptake in stress levels negate the relaxing effect of the holiday?

Spencer explains: “The stress of your workload can make it harder for you to relax when you get to the other side, and it might take a number of days to ease into that slower pace of life. If you can, then, book time off either side of going away so it’s not a last-minute stress, and you have time to adjust when you return.”

She adds: “Yes, the buildup of the daunting handover can push us to our already strained limits, but keep the end goal in sight – nothing can take away that first moment of holiday feeling!”

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Some stress is good for us, but when does it start to become unhealthy?

“If your stress load is so great that you cannot relax, cannot sleep or switch off at all, then you know that you have crossed a personal line and you need to step back,” advises Spencer.

“No one can work at a level of constant high intensity and pressure, and doing this long term can lead to life altering conditions and diseases. It’s important to keep in tune with your body and what it needs, not just to survive, but to actually LIVE your life.

“Yoga, mindfulness and meditation are all practices that help keep us tuned into our inner self, allowing us to listen to ourselves more. No job should ever make us sacrifice our health and wellbeing long term.”

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You need time off from work, even if you’re just going to be relaxing at home.

How can we keep ourselves from thinking about work when we finally do switch off for an extended break?

“Turn your phone off, let your work know you are uncontactable and allow yourself to flow into the energy of the place that you are in,” says Spencer.

“Take yourself as far away from where you were and really step out of the day. If you find yourself needing to check in and you simply can’t switch off, try mindfulness. Don’t worry if it’s not easy to just flow into a zen place, as there are many apps such as Calm and Headspace that can help you along the way. And we all need a little guidance sometimes.”

How can we get comfortable finishing on time, taking breaks, and using up our annual leave – especially in this era of presenteeism?

Spencer says firmly: “Be bold in who you are and what you need. Really think about how far you are being pushed and stand up for yourself. You can’t be the best at anything if you don’t allow yourself to rest and repair when needed, so set boundaries for yourself.

“And, once you’ve created them, don’t let anyone make you feel as if they aren’t yours to make.”

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Essentially, then, we all need to sit back, relax and recharge – and stop letting ourselves be daunted by all the admin that comes with booking time off. Because the destressing effects of a holiday (even if it’s just a much-needed holiday at home) are sure to set us right.

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