Returning Refreshed: A Comprehensive Guide to a Smooth Post-Holiday Work Transition


It’s a painful moment. You’ve gone from the sun and shore, waves crashing against the sand while you sip on a fruity cocktail, to the harshly lit office, two screens in front of you, a litany of meetings in the diary and a seemingly bottomless email intray. It’s the return to work from holiday, and for a lot of people it’s hell.

Re-entry shock, holiday hangover, call it what you will. For a lot of us it’s hard to not be overwhelmed by the stark transition, harder still to actually hit the ground running. These return periods often result in a drop in productivity, a slump in mood, and a sense of disconnection.

But there are ways to avoid the negative spiral a return to work can bring. With a well-planned  post-holiday transition, you can turn this potentially stressful time into an opportunity for rejuvenation and renewed focus. By implementing strategic measures, both employees and businesses can benefit from a smoother, more productive return to work.

The need for holiday

Sometimes during this draining return period we think, “why did I even take that holiday at all?” We convince ourselves it wasn’t worth the stress and that it would have been better to keep stubbornly plodding along without a break than face such a contrasting yin and yang.

As an example, senior advisor and executive coach Darin Rowell, EdD, quotes his client “Leslie” in Harvard Business Review. “Coming back from vacation almost makes [it] seem not worth it. For me, it’s like psychologically accelerating from a cruising pace of 30 mph to a speed of 80 so I can get through my inbox, catch up on all the meetings I missed, and reconnect with my neglected clients. And that’s on top of the guilt I’ve been feeling about overburdening my team while they’ve been covering for me.” [1]

Leslie’s thinking is common, but misplaced. Holidays are worth the pain of returning, even if you’re overwhelmed. Rest is vital, not optional. Refusal to commit to proper R&R can have profoundly negative consequences.

As Rowell writes, “research shows that those who don’t take the opportunity to rest, recharge, and recover are at higher risk of exhaustion, low motivation, poor performance, and burnout, while those who engage in regular periods of work recovery enjoy better sleep, higher job satisfaction, more engagement, and higher job performance.” [2]

Meanwhile, studies have shown that women tend to be less likely to use all of their allotted holiday days as compared with men. [3]

“In general, women tend to experience more guilt and are less confident than men, so that may hold women back from feeling like they can ask for and have permission to take time off,” says Fiona Murden, founder of Aroka, an organisational psychology consultancy, and author of Defining You. [4]

Given that studies show that workers who use their vacation days may be more productive and creative, as well as more likely to get a raise and receive higher performance reviews, it’s vital that all workers take proper time off [5]. But especially important women feel free to, or else we risk expanding an already too large gender divide.

Why do we slump?

It’s all too easy upon our return to lay the blame for our disconnection at our own feet –– we didn’t plan well enough, we didn’t check our emails or properly delegate, we had too much fun away from the office and are now reaping what we sewed. This melodramatic self-flagellation serves no one, and is fundamentally misplaced.

It’s only natural for the return to work life to be difficult. Holidays disrupt our biological rhythms and cognitive functions. Jet lag from travel, irregular sleep patterns, and changes in daily routines can all affect our ability to reintegrate into work. For instance, altered sleep cycles can impact our circadian rhythms, leading to fatigue and decreased cognitive function. Additionally, the pleasure of holiday activities boosts dopamine levels, creating a stark contrast when returning to routine tasks.

Additionally, our brains quite literally exaggerate the realities of day-to-day life, making the return to the mundane seem disproportionately more anxiety-inducing and depressing than it actually is. Indeed, according to Dr. Melissa Weinberg, a research consultant and psychologist specialising in well-being and performance psychology, this exaggeration of the brain that exacerbates our post-holiday blues is actually a sign of healthy psychological functioning.

“It’s just one of a series of illusions our brain fools us into believing, in the same way we think bad things are more likely to happen to others than they are to us. Somewhat ironically, the capacity to fool ourselves every single day is an indication of good mental and psychological functioning,” sh explains in The New Daily. [6]

“So, whether we did enjoy our holiday, and whether we’d rather be on vacation than back at work, our brain is wired to make us believe that we did, or that we would. In doing so, we pay the emotional cost for a well-enjoyed break, and we experience a comedown toward our baseline of well-being,” she explains.

That’s not to mention the emotional toll of time off. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people report being affected by holiday depression, and it’s most often triggered by financial, emotional, and physical stress of the season. [7]

The stress of holiday spending, combined with the abrupt end of relaxation and leisure, can lead to post-holiday blues. Adjusting back to work routines can feel daunting, and the emotional high of the holiday season may make the return to daily responsibilities seem even more monotonous –– you’re seeing the nine to five you were accustomed to with fresh eyes. It takes some time to fall back into the routine.

Negative impact

Needless to say, the post-holiday slump impacts the business as well as the returning employee. Decreased productivity can lead to missed deadlines and a backlog of work, while disengaged employees are more likely to consider leaving their jobs, increasing turnover rates. This period can also disrupt team dynamics and project timelines, affecting overall business performance. As such, it’s important we have plans in place to ensure our reintegration to working life is as smooth as possible.

Strategies for a smooth transition: Delegate

The first step to a smooth reintegration comes well before you’ve even set off. Once those rest days are in the diary, you want to inform those around you of the timings of your absence and ensure you’ve got the right people in place to cover your assignments. How you approach that will vary depending on your seniority. A manager will need to ensure someone is there in their stead to oversee operations. For a more junior member of the team, it’s best to have your manager do the delegating for you rather than take it on your own back; they know the strengths of the team better than you do.

A lot of the stress of returning post-holiday is the mountain of work that awaits you. Having a prepared and trusted set of delegates on top of the detail alleviates that pressure. Either they’ll have covered all your work, or will have been sufficiently across the detail that they can brief you on what you’ve missed so you’re not scrambling through your inbox searching for anything urgent.

Strategies for a smooth transition: Don’t overdo it

When we first return to work, it’s tempting to want to make up for lost time. That often means we end up overdoing it during our first week or even day. It’s understandable to want to cover all that lost ground right away. As Rowell writes, “the urge to overwork stems from a well-meaning effort to relieve team members of the extra work they were covering for you, or a desire to demonstrate that even though you were away, your commitment remains high and you’re still valuable to the organisation.” [8]

But overworking “can leave you boomeranging from one extreme to the other, which increases stress and actually undermines your efforts to catch up” [9]. Rowell recommends taking at least a day to recover after your holiday before you start working again so you can mentally and physically prepare for the change in environment.

Strategies for a smooth transition: Allow yourself a catch-up day

Once back in the office, Murden recommends using that first day back as a buffer day in which you don’t schedule any calls or meetings. “Unless it’s an emergency,” she says, “use this day to get organised.” [10]

David Henzel, a member of Forbes’ Young Entrepreneur Council, agrees. He says day one should be solely for catching up and reimbursing yourself in the worklife, with zero meetings. His aim is to be at “inbox zero” aka having zero pending messages by the end of the day. He says “taking this time to catch up on the first day back results in the mental clarity to properly plan out the remainder of the week and provides the momentum to be at your peak performance as soon as possible.” [11]

Strategies for a smooth transition: Exercise healthy boundaries

Another member of the Forbes’ Young Entrepreneur Council, Carry Metkowski, advises making use of one particularly helpful word once you’re back: No. There will be meetings you don’t need to attend, tasks that can wait. Don’t take on more than you can chew. Show some judgement and put the more menial elements of your workload on the backburner.

“While saying “no” can sometimes create a little discord at the moment,” she says, “the extra emotional reserves you’ll have to take care of more important things will be well worth it.” [12]

Strategies for a smooth transition: Reestablish a routine

A lot of the discord that comes in the wake of a holiday stems from the fact that your long-established routine has been disrupted. The key to reintegrating swiftly is to find it again. That means waking up at the usual time, undertaking any external activities you usually partake in, such as exercising or meditating pre- or post-work, and generally committing to your familiar habits.

This disciplined and consistent approach is crucial to regaining focus and efficiency,” says Izabela Lundberg of the Legacy Leaders Institute, “helping you tackle work challenges with renewed energy, passion and success.” [13]

Rest isn’t optional

Perhaps Rowell’s most essential advice is that, should you find yourself in a working environment that discourages time away, or that rewards employees for excessive hours and self-sacrifice while punishing those who take their legally-mandated holiday, you leave.

“This kind of unhealthy work environment will leave you ripe for exhaustion and burnout,” he writes. “If you can’t leave right away, start creating an exit strategy” [14]. You deserve time off. Any company that fails to acknowledge that or correctly honour it isn’t worth your time.

Returning refreshed

While the initial return to work after a holiday can feel jarring, it doesn’t have to be a period of dread. By viewing this time as an opportunity for rejuvenation and renewed focus, both employees and businesses can benefit.

Rest isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Businesses that prioritise employee well-being by encouraging proper time off and fostering a supportive work environment ultimately reap the rewards of a more engaged and productive workforce.

However, the responsibility doesn’t solely lie with employers. Employees must also be proactive in creating a smooth transition. This includes planning ahead, delegating tasks, and prioritising well-being during the first week back. Remember, it’s okay to say “no” to additional workload and to focus on reestablishing a healthy routine.

By following these strategies, we can transform the post-holiday period from a dreaded slump into a time for renewed energy and a successful return to work.

More on Rest

The Burnout Epidemic

How Much Should You be Working?

Stress Management and Leadership Through Mindfulness