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Surviving the post-vacation blues

Labor Day marks the end of the vacation season for many Americans, bringing with it a sense of dread for some workers. Here are some ways to get rid of the post-vacation blues.
Image: Post-Vacation blues
Just can't seem to let that vacation go? Try pampering yourself with a nice dinner or day at the spa after you return to the office. Martin Poole / Getty Images stock

Ah, Labor Day. It was a great idea conceived in the late 1800s by a New York-based labor union to give workers across the nation a day off as a way to recognize their hard work.

But the holiday, sadly, has become synonymous with the end of the vacation season for many Americans.

Lately it seems many workers — who are overworked, fearful of layoffs and struggling to stretch their paychecks — are suffering from the post-vacation blues.

There’s a great episode of "The Office" called “Back From Vacation” where the fictional manager Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, just can’t seem to leave his Jamaican vacation behind, so much so that he plays steel drums in the office and wears a tiny braid in his hair.

The show is right on target. It’s getting harder to let go of your vacation time and start concentrating on work time.

One reason may be that many workers don't really take vacations.

“A day off from work no longer means a vacation,” says Marjorie Savage, absence management director with financial services company The Hartford. “Many workers are spending their days off doing stressful things, such as chores or caring for family. Trouble is, we all need downtime to recharge our bodies and our minds.”

A study by The Hartford found that even when workers do get days off, only 42 percent use those days to go on a vacation, and only 9 percent said they did something enjoyable during their days away from work.

For workers who do take a real vacation, it may be hard to leave it behind.

“I went on a three-day trip with four of my close friends. I was so sad when I got back to work that I considered moving to the location we were just visiting and trying to start a life there,” said Joie Tamkin, a manager for a baby products retailer. “I even enlisted one of my friends from the trip in the idea, and she was all for it.”

After a few days back in the reality of the daily grind, they thought better of their impetuous plans.

“I then decided to plan another vacation so I had something to look forward to,” she explains.

The post-vacation blues
The affliction of post-vacation blues may not have made it into psychology books, but it is something many workers say they're struggling with lately.

“There’s a lot of negativity out there right now,” says Dr. Robert Puff, a clinical psychologist and the author of “Anger Work: How To Express Your Anger and Still Be Kind.”

“You have people already grumbling at work when they keep reading and hearing about people  losing their jobs, unemployment being up,” he says. “So when people go on vacation, they say, ‘This is great.’”

Employees are also overworked and in need of camaraderie, adds Ronald Humphrey, associate professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Affect and Emotion: New Directions in Management Theory and Research.”

They are overworked because many businesses have cut back on staffing and handed more projects to those left behind, Humphrey explains.

And, he adds, office or factory friendships with co-workers are suffering because companies are constantly reorganizing teams, and opportunities to socialize and have fun are becoming few and far between.

“When you go on vacation you spend a lot of time with family and friends, with people who love and care about you,” he says. “Then you come back to the office, and it may be cold and emotionless.”

Even if you were able to take that great dream vacation — say, a month at a quaint villa in Tuscany — the weak economy may have hampered the fun.

Take Jennifer Hudson, who works for a health services firm. She had to plan a shorter trip to Europe because of the weak dollar.

“So coming back, I had the combo of jet lag, going back to work immediately upon arrival and remorse over not getting to stay longer and enjoy it, like Europeans do,” she says.

Coming back refreshed
There’s also the possibility that you hate your job and need to find a new one. But for those of you who are just a bit bummed out when it comes time to unpack the valise, there are ways to get back to normal after the scent of sea air has dissipated:

  • Throw a party. "I would suggest that offices have post-vacation office parties that allow people to show photos from their vacations and talk about their vacations, and thus bring some of their vacation spirit back to work with them,” advises Virginia Commonwealth’s Humphrey. “For example, if some of the people went at beach locations, they could have beach parties, with beach blankets, etc.  More importantly, if companies use good motivational principles throughout the year, then employees shouldn't feel too blue about coming back to work." 

  • Step away from the e-mail. You know your e-mail inbox is going to be overflowing, so take time before you jump in, recommends workplace communications trainer Laurent Duperval. “Most people receive too much e-mail every day, and if the first thing you see upon your return is that you have 328 e-mails waiting, that's a good recipe for the blues,” he says.
  • Pamper yourself. “Schedule a meal at a fabulous restaurant for when you return. Ditto for a spa, concert or whatever else turns you on,” says Adrian Miller, a sales training expert.
  • Get a jump on work. While it might sound counterintuitive, “some people find it helpful to go into the office early on their first day back, or even on the night before their first day back, in order to clear out their inbox,” says Joseph Weiner, chief of consultation psychiatry at North Shore University Hospital.
  • Bring a bit of sand to the office. Photos of your vacation or souvenirs are a great way to relive the fun you had. “Good feelings aren’t over because vacation has ended. You can conjure up a good memory anytime you like,” notes Debbie Mandel, author of the upcoming book, “Addicted to Stress: A Woman's 7-Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life.”

It’s all about not letting the negativity play you like a puppet, says Puff, the psychologist. “If you’re aware of the negativity, you can go against it and make your job more enjoyable,” he maintains.

Happy Labor Day! Or I should say, find ways to stay happy on the day after Labor Day!