If you’ve been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, you might feel like all of the days are running together and you don’t have a good handle on time anymore. Here’s a question for you: When’s the last time you took time off work?
If it’s been a while, or if you’ve taken an occasional day but forgone your usual vacation, you’re not alone. According to a survey by Robert Half, 28% of workers anticipated taking less time off this summer and 37% were pushing their vacation time later in the year due to the coronavirus pandemic. And that doesn’t account for many of us who’ve let the spring and summer slip by with little thought to using our paid time off (PTO).
“People are used to doing something specific, going somewhere, having a specific destination or plan and now no one is traveling,” says Muse career coach Heidi Ravis, a career consultant and New York State Licensed Mental Health Counselor. You might also be feeling guilty: With so many other people struggling during the pandemic, you may consider yourself lucky to have a job at all and may feel bad taking a break from the employment people wish they still had. If your company has gone through layoffs, this feeling might be compounded by an increased workload and a sense that you can’t afford to step away. Or you may feel grateful that you get to work from home while essential workers are risking their health.
But “everyone needs a break, regardless of their work situation,” Ravis says. “These are unprecedented times and many people are confronting new stresses and emotions. Taking a break to unplug and recharge can help to give us the strength and resilience we need to manage all that we have going on.”
Why You Should Take Time Off During the COVID-19 Pandemic
When people started working from home due to COVID-19, no one really anticipated how long the pandemic and resulting restrictions were going to last. It makes sense that you might not have been rushing to use your PTO at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. But if you’ve been working since March with few or no days off, it’s time to take a break.
You might even need time off more than in past years for your own mental well-being. When you’re working from home, it’s harder to set boundaries between work and personal time. This can result in working longer hours or feeling like you should be working even when you’re off the clock. Due to the pandemic, you might also be feeling more anxious and cooped up than usual and cut off from a lot of your usual outlets for these emotions like going to the movies, playing sports, or attending parties, Ravis says. So vacation is a matter of self-care, especially during COVID-19.
On top of giving you a chance to relax and recharge, taking time off makes you a more well-rounded person. If all you’re doing all the time is work, you’re only using one part of your brain and one part of your potential. Taking time off to focus on something more creative or physical, for example, can give you a sense of balance, Ravis says.
A vacation can also improve your job performance, according to Michelle Gielan, a positive psychology researcher and motivational speaker who has studied the effects of vacation. In her research with Project: Time Off in 2017, Gielan found that employees who routinely take 11 or more paid days of vacation were almost twice as likely to have received a bonus or raise in the last three years compared to those who took less time off.
“It’s amazing to think that a vacation can be an investment in your career,” Gielan says, but taking the time to recharge can improve your work performance. A mental break can help you relieve stress, and when you’re feeling better, you do your job better.
If you’re out of work and job hunting during COVID, this all still applies. Looking for a job can be even more stressful than working, Ravis says. So taking some time away can make you feel healthier and give you more energy for the search.
6 Tips for Making the Most of Time Off During the Coronavirus Pandemic
It’s not enough to just take PTO, you want to make sure your time off is truly refreshing. Try these tips to help you get as much as you can out of your vacation—even if you’re not going anywhere.
1. Think About How Long You Need to Take Off
Make sure you take the amount of time you need. If you don’t feel like you fully wind down from your job on the weekends, then taking two or three days off might not be long enough to rejuvenate you, says Virginia Tech professor Rosemary Blieszner, a researcher specializing in gerontology, family relationships, and well-being. If you’re good at compartmentalizing, you might feel more refreshed by a shorter vacation—but be honest with yourself.
Take into account how many vacation days you’ve accumulated. When you don’t use your PTO you’re literally leaving money on the table, so you want to make sure you’re on track to use what you’re allotted. If you work at a company with unlimited PTO, it may be hard to gauge the correct amount of time to take. Talking with your boss and coworkers can give you a sense of what’s commonly done, but generally, Gielan recommends aiming to take at least 11 days over the course of each year—her research has shown that’s the point when people start to get the most out of vacation time.
Regardless, remember that attaching your PTO to a weekend or weekends is a great way to lengthen your break.
2. Make Sure You’re Covered
The two most common reasons people cite for not taking time off are that they’ll come back to a mountain of work and that no one else can do their job while they’re away, Gielan says. People also fear that taking time off—especially during economic uncertainty—might make it look like they’re not dedicated to their jobs. However, you can mitigate all of these things by planning well.
Before your vacation, look at the work that’ll need to be done while you’re gone. Can any of it be done ahead of time? If so, do it—but slowly so as not to overwhelm yourself. Of the things you can’t do ahead of time, ask yourself (and your manager) what can wait and what needs to be done during the time you’re out. Set a schedule for catching up afterward. This will help make your return less stressful and demonstrate that you’re a dedicated employee.
Hopefully there aren’t many things that need to be done while you’re out. But if there are, talk to your coworkers and see if someone would be willing and able to cover for you—and you can do the same for them when they take vacation.
3. Set Boundaries While You’re Out
Before your vacation begins, it’s important to set expectations—both for yourself and the people you work with, Ravis says. Will you check your email or respond to issues? If so, try to limit it to set times. Communicate this to your coworkers.
Set an out-of-office message for your email so people know they shouldn’t expect to hear from you. You can also list the contact information for the person or people covering for you if there’s an urgent issue.
If you have a separate work phone and/or laptop, consider physically putting them away for the length of your time off. If you don’t have separate devices, create barriers for yourself. For example, consider temporarily turning off all notifications or deleting your email, Slack, or other work apps from your phone.
4. Consider Disconnecting Even More
Think about whether taking a break from social media or limiting news intake will help you relax and truly enjoy your time off, Blieszner says. In 2020, the news may be one of the big things you need a break from!
You should also limit how many of your time-off activities require the use of your phone or computer, Ravis says. You want your vacation to feel different from your usual activities, and for many of us, staring at a screen all day is not so different.
5. Decide What You Want to Do Ahead of Time
“It’s easy to slip into life as usual and not feel refreshed by your staycation,” Blieszner says. That’s why it’s important to have a plan for your time off, so you don’t backslide into your regular routine. Plus, the planning process itself might also spark some much-needed joy—something that has been in short supply for many of us during the pandemic.
Vacation is “about getting our brain off work and getting a break from feeling that constant pressure,” Gielan says. So ask yourself “What is it that makes me feel really good?” Ravis says. Is it biking? Hiking? Going to the beach? Maybe it’s reading a good book or learning to cook something new. If you’ve been in lockdown on your own, maybe you really want to (safely) see the people you care about. If you’ve been on top of your family 24/7, maybe you’re craving some time alone. Whatever it is, start sketching out how you’ll spend your time off in advance.
Of course, the worst result of any vacation during COVID-19 would be someone getting sick. So while you’re planning, keep CDC guidelines and local public health rules in mind. Many businesses and attractions have started to open up again, but before partaking in anything, do your research to see if it seems truly safe. Plan some additional home activities that you can sub in for public places and keep an eye on any surge in cases.
6. Look for Activities You’ve Never Done Before—and Get Creative
As human beings, we tend to crave novelty. “That’s why people are starting to feel stir crazy,” Blieszner says. Disrupting the monotony of the pandemic will help you recharge during your break, so try to be creative and think of things you haven’t done before—whether you do them on your own or share them with others.
If you’re looking for ideas, here are some to start with:
- Take a virtual tour of a place you’d like to go to
- Set up a hangout space in your yard or on a deck, rooftop, balcony, or fire escape
- Have a family game day or tournament where everyone gets to choose a board game, video game, or sport
- Rent a house somewhere where the main attraction is the outdoor setting
- Look for ways to contribute to the local economy by shopping safely at a small business, ordering food from a local restaurant, or going to a farmer’s market
- Seek out hiking and biking trails and other nature walks
- Take advantage of what your local library has to offer—many have curbside pickup and a lot of virtual resources like ebooks that will help you learn new things
- Look for cheap games and puzzles at your local thrift store—if it’s safe and open
- Host a virtual friend group or family reunion
- Make a list of movies you always meant to watch, books you always meant to read, and/or musical artists you always meant to listen to and choose a few to experience during your vacation
- Read an old favorite book or watch an old favorite movie
- Go for a long walk around your town or city and explore a new neighborhood
- Bake, cook, or mix a new dessert, cuisine, or cocktail.
- Watch a livestreamed or recorded concert—and act like you’re there in person (wear the T-shirt, sing along until you’re hoarse!)
- Take an online course
- Join a protest in your area
- Volunteer for a cause you feel passionate about
Regardless of how you choose to spend your time off, what’s important is that it’s enjoyable for you. It’s been a tough year, and we all deserve a break.