THE BLOG
08/20/2013 09:48 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Spending Your Vacation Worried About Work?

Finally, vacation time. Rest, relaxation... or time off when worries about work drive you even crazier than usual? In this economy, with so much uncertainty, a vacation can be torture.

Enjoying a vacation may seem impossible when you're worried. But you can do it. And your success depends on it.

My son was born at 9:59 a.m. on July 1 in Washington, D.C. By noon, my obstetrician said, "The faster you get out of this hospital, the better. Every year the new residents start on July 1. So lots of people around here don't know what they're doing."

July -- here the most dangerous month to be in a hospital. And any place where August is vacation time, the time when instability in the work-world can kill vacations.

Three Threats to the Revitalizing Vacation You Desperately Need

Uncertainty About Organizational Changes: Earlier this month, we learned that The Washington Post is being sold to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. Since then the media has been flooded with interesting articles about how innovative Jeff is, and frightening articles about his management style. Now what do you Think Washington Post employees are doing on their August vacation? Sitting on the beach, looking out over the ocean, enjoying delicious fantasies about how wonderful innovation is going to make their lives?

Or worrying about the new boss, and whether they should look for another job, retire early... or who knows what? Does hearing that your new boss is a practitioner of creative destruction sound reassuring or threatening?

Fear of Being Fired While Away: Even worse than working for an unpredictable leader is working for an organization that routinely fires people while they're on vacation. How can anyone enjoy a vacation, recharge to go back to work and take on new challenges, when they're afraid that leaving the office makes it easier for someone to fire them?

Guilt Trip: A recent article in The New York Times criticizes political leaders and senior European Commission officials for taking a vacation while the 4-year-old eurozone crisis persists and citizens continue to suffer. Sure an argument can be made that taking a vacation in the midst of a crisis is selfish and insensitive, even arrogant.

But this ignores the reality and risks of fatigue. Everyone knows that sleep deprivation is systematically used to weaken and disorient people, make them feel like options are limited. Yet we persistently refuse to acknowledge that work-related fatigue limits people's ability to generate good ideas and even causes them to inadvertently mishandle problems.

Counterintuitive as it seems, solutions to the most complex problems often surface while people are asleep or right after we give our minds a rest. When we distract the brain from direct focus on a problem and wash the dishes, watch waves caress the beach, or even rain dancing on the street, the brain takes a creative pause that then fast-forwards progress.

This works because while the exhausted part of the brain rests, another part takes over and finds answers. Kind of like one member of the family spending an endless week looking for something in the attic, and another walking in and seeing it immediately... simply because they are not exhausted by the physical, mental, and emotional clutter that builds up when we are immersed in a complicated problem for just too long.

The most expert executive coaches will tell you that taking a break during a prolonged crisis isn't selfish. It's the intelligent and responsible thing to do.

How to Have a Successful Vacation When Worries Want to Come Along

Break the Habit: Are these worries new ones specifically related to recent events? Or is worrying a reflex habit you've had forever?

It took me years to realize it, but I was addicted: a worry-junkie. I never smoked. But like a smoker, whenever there was a free moment or I felt nervous, my mind would reach for a worry. And inhale it deeply, over and over again until I was either exhausted or something interrupted me.

The antidote? Every time I felt myself reaching for a worry, I reached for an affirmation instead. Specifically said to myself, "I don't worry and I'm happy," over and over until the worry craving passed or something more positive got my attention. Within weeks, the discipline became effortless. I had substituted one addiction for another, and if for no other reason, except less wear and tear on my brain, I am happier. If worrying is a habit, a vacation period is a perfect time to break it... forever.

Put it On Ice: The first step in the world's best behavior change programs is admitting powerlessness over something. Before you leave for vacation (or begin your stay-cation) try turning that currently unfixable problem over to a higher power to tend to it while you're away. If just doing this mentally doesn't work, supplement with this: Write your worry down on a piece of paper. Put the paper into a zip-lock bag. Put the bag into the freezer and walk away. There it is, on ice, ready for you to take out when your vacation ends. Sounds silly but it works. Now go enjoy yourself.

Consider the Consequences of Vacation-Failure: If you're the type who's better motivated by fear of failure than the promise of success, consider this -- if you fail at really unplugging from work, if you don't get the mental rest you need, you will go back to your challenge even less able to take it on. There is an answer and you won't see it. And on top of wasting your vacation, you may unintentionally bring on what you fear most.

Pencil a New Strategy: If you can surrender to the rest you need, somewhere in the midst of your vacation, a clear idea on next steps may surface. If so, you've got it. Pencil it onto the back of that magazine, toss the magazine into your suitcase, and go back to reading your book or playing with the kids.

Decide It's Time to Look for a New Job: If all else fails, the frustration of a miserable vacation may give you a profound gift; certainty that it's time to quit. If anxiety about work has made you unable to focus on the other life priorities essential to your survival- family, friends, rest and simple joys- it may be time to draw the line. Coming back from a vacation having decided to seriously begin a job search doesn't mean the vacation was a failure.

Any vacation that clarifies your thinking and re-energizes you is a success.