I’m in a busy café on the outskirts of drizzly Vancouver after two and a half amazing weeks in British Columbia. My partner and I came last year to ski Revelstoke for five days straight and loved it so much we decided to come back, this time for longer, taking in an awesome roadtrip with ferry crossing (love me a ferry crossing) down to Nelson, to ski Whitewater and sightsee. It’s been breathtaking: the lakes and mountains, snow and ice, extreme temperatures and incredible isolation (and this is probably one of the more ‘crowded’ parts of Canada).
As is our custom, we talked extensively about travel. My amazing trip to Italy with Tjeerd many years ago, exploring the Caucasus with Dan, solo missions to Brazil and Morocco. Chris’ numerous work trips, including previous dalliances skiing in the Selkirks.
We also talked about the tension of vacation when you work in a corporate environment – the wind-down as you turn on your out of office, the low-level awareness of stuff happening in the office in your absence (Chris’ company just switched CEOs), the subtle but relentless increase in tension as return draws nearer.
I’ve worked freelance for years, so my concept of vacation is a little more fluid – my boss is really generous with vacation days and doesn’t even mind if I take a yoga class or ten before I get to the ‘office’. As long as I get the work done. But the memories of corplaw linger.
“I remember one trip, when I was a lawyer, already on track to burnout,” I mentioned over a particularly excellent vegetarian poutine and cider.
Chris nodded as he stacked a fork with chips, gravy and cheese curd, for max poutine flavor.
“We were away for two weeks, and I remember a sense of relief when I got back to the office. Like, it was easier to be at work, stressed and hating life, than handling the guilt of not being at work.” My brow furrowed with shame at this realization.
But it was true. There had been times when I preferred to be in the office, at the center of the shitstorm, than be absent and deal with the voices in my head and the blinking light on my Blackberry (technologically speaking, 2010 was a long time ago).
Recalling this experience made me wonder, is vacation a cure for burnout?
The answer is a resounding NO.
For a few reasons:
- Few of us are truly ever out of office anymore
With few exceptions, most workplaces expect us to respond to calls, texts and even emails when we are away from the office. This means that even during a reasonably long vacation, we don’t fully disconnect or unplug from the obligations that make up our role, undermining our capacity to get the perspective and rest our brains and souls long for.
- The benefits of vacation tend to fade within a few days
Perhaps you know the feeling: you return from a sensational vacation with a killer tan, an array of epic new Instie posts and stacks of positive energy. “Everything is going to be different!” you think, as you update friends and colleagues on your adventures. Then, maybe a week or two later, you catch yourself feeling the same lowkey disenchantment, thinking the same thoughts about the same stupid boss, or annoying work protocol, or life generally. As a report by the American Psychology Association points out, “the benefits of vacation time are fleeting”. It’s not a solution to ongoing malaise of the burnout variety.
- Vacation can actually make things (seemingly) worse
If you’re feeling really low, as I was, travel itself can feel stressful. And suddenly having time to reflect on how unhappy you are at work can bring insight that makes you feel worse. It’s still totally worth it because of the value of that insight – but at the time it can be painful, not very Insta-worthy and mean some tough decisions when you get home. If you’re feeling so bad that the idea of a vacation stresses you out, it can be worth talking to a GP or therapist before you go.
- Vacations are just not long enough to cure burnout
When you’re struggling with chronic stress, and starting to show the signs of burnout, a couple of weeks at the beach or a weekend exploring a new city will not cut it. It’s not long enough to fully decompress and actually address the symptoms of burnout, let alone find a cure.
So, what works?
The short answer is there is no simple fix for burnout. It is a deeply personal experience and an appropriate solution depends on many factors specific to your situation.
Distilling how to address burnout on individual and societal levels is proving to be one of the toughest aspects of writing my book – but also the most rewarding (annoying how those two so often overlap).
I’ll write more about the long answer in future blogs.