How to Recover from the Post-Vacation Blues

Last Updated Aug 30, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

I remember when a good friend of mine came back from a trip to Greece. She told me what a wonderful time she'd had, what amazing little restaurants she'd found. It all sounded pretty great. "But then," she said, "I went back into work and I just sat there the whole day wishing I wasn't there."

Her vacation had done exactly what vacations are supposed to do: given her enough time to rest and reflect. And she didn't like what she saw. This is what is so frightening about vacations and may be one reason why we don't take them. They give us time to think.

Time to think is scary because we get out of the habit of doing it. High performers demonstrate a bias for action, and that action is addictive. We'd rather be doing than thinking. But thinking is what we need to do.

Careers require courage. Even -- or especially -- when reflection is frightening, we need time out to see where we are and where we are going. Do you sit on the beach and come up with dozens of new ideas for work -- or do you fantasize about being able to storm out? Do you find yourself noticing new trends and ideas that relate to your job -- or are you desperate to immerse yourself in books that take you far far away? Do you use vacation to develop a new skill or to seek out new experiences -- or are you so burned out that all you want to do is sleep? All of these things will tell you whether you're in a great job or whether you're stuck. Yes, it can be scary.

Returning to work after a vacation is always a shock. It's not just that you have to get up early, don office clothes and resume a commute. It's that going back tell us whether we are in the right place or not. That's why people happy in their work keep taking vacations: they aren't afraid of re-entry. For others though, it can be a real wake up call.

Don't duck it. If coming back to work feels that bad, pay attention. What is it about your job that's so discomfiting? Is it the work, or the people or the place? Does the career need tweaking or an overhaul? Are you proud of the person you are at work -- or does that persona suddenly seem wholly incompatible with the person you were on the beach?

When my friend returned from Greece, she was deeply shocked to discover just how much she hated her job. She thought she had two choices: either change jobs or never go away again. The shock of re-entry was simply too great. Fortunately, she made the bolder choice. She left the world of corporate finance and joined a small accounting practice. To others, it may not have looked like an earth-shattering transition, but she later told me she thought it saved her life.

She still takes vacations. Because, she says, she isn't afraid of them any more.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.