“Rest Is Productive”—a Therapist Shares How To Beat Vacation Guilt Once and for All

Your worth is more than your work.

By Isabelle Eyman

I have a trip coming up, and the vacation guilt has already set in. My younger sister is getting married, and in my family’s tried-and-true fashion, it’s a DIY affair. She’s making her own multi-layer cake, we’re in charge of the décor (rustic, mountainy chic is the chosen aesthetic), and one of my fellow bridesmaids even made her own dress (!!).

Needless to say, while I’m grateful to connect with my family and I’ll be embracing the opportunity to step away from my screens with open arms, I’m not anticipating my most *relaxing* vacation to date. And though I don’t have plans to nap poolside (though the bachelorette will involve a few sun-soaked hours of stand-up paddling), it’s not being available that’s the cause of my vacation guilt.

While it isn’t a common, standardized phrase, it’s likely that we’ve all felt vacation guilt before. In our hyper-connected, always-on world, the expectation to be responding and producing at all times is real. And coming as a shock to absolutely no one, our inability to (physically, mentally, emotionally) disconnect from our work comes with a host of harmful effects.

Talk of an impending ‘Great Burnout‘ is spreading itself throughout the media, and in a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, roughly 3 out of 5 employees surveyed reported experiencing negative impacts of work-related stress. Decreased motivation, dwindling passion and interest, and diminished energy levels.

So a guilt-free vacation? We’re clearly in need.

Featured image by Kate Holstein.

Camille Styles Austin pool_vacation guilt
Image by Kristen Kilpatrick

With a slightly selfish motivation, I got in touch with NYC-based therapist, Kathryn Lee, for actionable tips that anyone can use to banish vacation guilt once and for all. A key reminder to kick us off? According to Lee, setting healthy, firm boundaries is crucial to experiencing rest. Let’s get to the vacation guilt-free good stuff.

Kathryn Lee, MHC, Ed.M, M.A

Kathryn Lee is a New York City-based mental health counselor whose work aims to support all people by creating an empathetic, compassionate, and nonjudgmental environment. Her client-centered approach aims to tailor the therapeutic process to each individual, working collaboratively with clients to ensure their perspectives are supported and all their needs are met.

How can we approach guilt in a compassionate, productive way?

Any level or form of guilt can be challenging to experience. As Lee says, it’s a powerful emotion. If you’ve experienced guilt (of course, we all have), you’re familiar with its very visceral, dominating weight. And though it might be tempting to ignore, bottle up, or push away, Lee encourages the opposite.

“Acknowledging and naming the guilt is the first step in moving through it. Once you have done that, explore and process the feelings underneath the guilt.” Reflect and ask yourself:

  • Are you worried about the consequences you may face?
  • Do you feel responsible for something?
  • Do you feel that this makes you lazy, bad, or disorganized?

It’s important to remember that these feelings of guilt, though they may appear as deeply-rooted, internal truths, “are triggered by a message or even repeated messages that we’ve received at certain points in our lives, careers, or relationships,” notes Lee. Kiss your inner critic goodbye (actually, give them a gentle, but firm push out of your mental space), and replace that narrative with curiosity, kindness, and self-compassion.

Garnet Hill Camille Styles pool_vacation guilt
Image by Michelle Nash

What steps we can take beforehand to help our future selves unplug as much as possible?

This is where boundaries come into play. Nipping vacation guilt in the bud is a great way to practice setting strong boundaries with your tasks, inbox, and coworkers. To ensure these boundaries are respected, Lee emphasizes that it’s important to communicate them ahead of time to your colleagues and manager.

“Let your team know if you are going to log out from your work email, mute work-related chat conversations, and/or have limited WiFi,” Lee suggests. Express your needs with your team: Is there a project you could use support on while you’re out? An account that a coworker may need to take over temporarily? “Equip and provide them with resources in the event that an emergency arises.”

But remember: Oftentimes, what might seem like an “emergency” isn’t life or death. Trust that issues can be taken care of while you’re gone or once you return. “After you’ve set your boundaries,” says Lee, “it is up to you to maintain the boundaries you’ve implemented.”

Divya Gugnani meditating_vacation guilt
Image by Alex Spigle

How can we set boundaries with people who don’t respect our own?

Dealing with a coworker who continues to reach out despite your automatic OOO email reply? Many of us have been there, and it can be tempting to dive back in and help out. But Lee shares a crucial distinction in taking a positive approach: “While we can’t control our coworkers’ behaviors and actions, we can control our own.”

Now’s the time to double down and express those boundaries kindly, but firmly. And if feelings of guilt crop up, Lee reminds us that these boundaries aren’t just for you—you set them in place to support your team as well.

“Boundaries are the space in which we can respect and care for ourselves and each other.”

“Respond to your coworker when you can and have the capacity to,” says Lee. “Begin by first validating their concerns. Then create a plan of how and when you can address the issue again.”

Nihel Ayari Austin Brunch_vacation guilt
Image by Michelle Nash

Even with unlimited PTO policies, vacation guilt happens. What mindset shifts can help release feelings of guilt?

There’s so much tied up in the concept of vacation guilt. Lee cites the pressure to strive, the belief that it’s easier if we do things ourselves, and the all-pervasive, harmful narrative that we have to “work 24/7 to earn our worth, a promotion, or our manager’s favor.”

“Taking time off means a break in that narrative. Often, we need to do the inner work to feel more at peace about taking time off.”

Therapist-Approved Mindset Shifts to help Beat Vacation Guilt

Lee shares the following mindset shifts that can set you up for success on vacation and beyond.

  • Good work is not rewarded by rest. Rest precedes good work. Rest is productive. We cannot produce good work if we are depleted. 
  • Release control. There are things you cannot control especially when you are working with a team. Let go and trust that you and they are competent to respond to situations that may arise. 
  • You cannot please everyone. As much as you may like to, it’s impossible. Prioritize you and your needs instead.
  • Perfection is impossible. Everything might not be tied in a neat bow for your departure, but remember: that’s okay. 
Sanetra Logno using phone
Image by Michelle Nash

If a vacation isn’t in the cards, how can we reduce stress while continuing to work?

Desperate for a break but can’t make it work? The good news is that there are small, simple ways to lift a little of the weight from your shoulders. With whatever time is available to you, even if it’s only five minutes, Lee suggests creating dedicated space to destress. “When we are stressed, it can be difficult to make decisions, slowing down our progress.” Taking a walk, listening to music, incorporating a few mindfulness practices into your schedule, or even physically separating yourself from your work can help you reset.

And don’t forget to approach your weekends as they’re intended to be spent! Lee encourages investing “in activities that you enjoy and give you life. Think about one thing you can do for your body, one thing you can do for your mind, and one thing you can do for your soul.”

A stress-free vacation awaits.