Too Stressed to Rest

08 September 2022 by Matt Read
blog author

  1. Cram in all tasks before logging off for a well-deserved holiday

  2. Remember you haven't turned on your OOO notification

  3. Relaaaaaax

  4. Battle the temptation to check email inbox

  5. Check your email inbox

  6. Immediate regret, worry about all that waits for you when you get back

  7. Pretend that you didn’t actually read your emails

  8. Imagine what life would be like if you never went back to work

  9. 500 emails in your inbox!

  10. Relief, it's mostly spam and calendar invites

  11. Breathe, perhaps no one noticed you were gone

  12. Wait, does that mean I add nothing to my workplace?

  13. 'Normal' again


This post comes from a very real-life relatable experience. I’m heading off on holiday next week and I began thinking about what I need to do before I leave to make sure that nothing is forgotten and that I haven’t double-booked myself or forgotten to hand over something urgent and important. I then remembered a conversation I had with a colleague who was feeling very stressed when she returned from her holiday at the beginning of summer.

It made me think about what a ‘normal’ level of stress is, and how that correlated to an upcoming holiday/taking some time out from work. In the graph (close to the bottom and running in parallel to the ‘Time’ axis), is a dotted blue line which represents where we normally operate in our working life. I’d say that this is our comfort zone for most of the year but as we approach holiday time, stress can often peak because we're tired, need a break and are looking forward to a rest. We know that the finish line is in sight, but also need to tie up lots of loose ends before we go as we feel a responsibility to be in control and don't want anything to drop while we're away.

This is where the steep incline of stress starts. At #1, we're starting to think “how can I cram everything into this final week or these final couple of days? I need to make sure that I can justify taking my holiday”. At point #2 there is an abrupt thought “I haven't put my out-of-office notification on!” which is often where stress peaks. It's inevitable that you’ll then look at your emails. However, once this final check has been done, you start to relax into #3. This takes the form of stepping back and beginning to revert to a normal level of stress and hopefully beyond the normal level of stress, taking us into a space where we can rest and recharge. According to Amelia and Emily Nagoski, authors of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle”, typical holiday habits like exercise, breathing deeply and reading help us to end the stress cycles we’ve been wrapped up in. This allows our body and mind to come down through the gears and enter rest.

If only it stopped there!

At some point in the holiday, there comes a little niggle of worry about how work is going. Thoughts might include “I wonder if anyone emailed me? I wonder if my project’s on fire? I wonder if I've handed this over in the right way?” and yet again we have that temptation to look at our emails - and suddenly, our stress levels spike a little again.

However, we try and fight that temptation. We go back to reading our book by the pool, jumping the waves at the beach, seeing family and friends, but the pull is still there. Although we're away from the office it's very common to think about work, and just taking a block of one week or two weeks per year doesn’t seem like the correct ratio of work/home life.

If our brains are always saturated and constantly working these things through, it can sometimes seem easier to give into temptation and check those emails. If we do this, we may instantly regret it. The stress level rises again, we see numerous emails asking for us to do different things. Does it require a phone call? Or a quick check-in? And then the cycle of regret begins again.

Added to that are the thoughts and worries about all that we must do when we return to work (despite still being on holiday). We don’t WANT to think about work, but we ARE thinking about work, so that stress has gone right back up to a normal level.

Now we’re at #7. At this point we pretend that we didn't actually read any emails at all – also known as self-denial! Maybe we told a small white lie to our loved ones or lied to ourselves and are denying its existence. We’re now thinking that we'll deal with it when we get back to work. Right now, we need to enjoy the holiday that we've spent money, time and energy on. It's rare to have time away from work, so we’re determined to make the most of it and live in a state of ignorant bliss for a while.

Hold on. We’re at #8 now. We’re starting to imagine what would life be like if we never went back? Could we just quit our jobs and live as a hermit? Or at the very least, leave our jobs and live differently? What if we didn’t pay taxes? How would that work out? This sort of denial stage can often return just before the inevitable realisation that we've got to go back to work. This is when stress (the night before) can often spike. We have a sleepless night, overthink and over worry about things.

Then comes #9 - we arrive at work at 9am the next morning, log on and find 500 emails. Panic stations, adrenaline pumping. At that moment our eyes are fluttering right across the screen. We’re thinking, what's the priority? What's gone on? And we're at this real hyperarousal stage - fight or flight syndrome is very much engaged in that respect. Alternatively, this could also look like the freeze syndrome, known as hypoarousal. Feeling low energy and lethargic, aware of urgent matters to attend to but finding it hard to get out of first gear to tackle all those to-dos.

However, that specific realisation often dips fairly quickly during that first day back and we take a reality check - realise that at least half of the emails are unimportant or at the very least, non-urgent.

We realise that we can finally take a breath. Our stress levels slowly drop and eventually they reduce even further, as doubt and realisation creeps in - maybe no-one noticed we had actually gone. Maybe our role isn’t that important.

We’re now at #12. Are we having an existential crisis? Do we add anything to our workplace? What difference do we really make? Stress levels spike again very briefly, until normality takes hold again. We’re back. We’re on top of everything. We’re back in the room.

(Until we get back on that sun lounger next year).

Matt is a Coach at Acre Frameworks and he specialises in coaching around mindset, wellbeing and purpose in work. He is PCC accredited through the International Coaching Federation (ICF). Come and talk to us if you’d like to discover more about our coaching and development solutions at