Why is it so hard to go back to work after vacation?

Sometimes you feel even more drained after taking a few days off. Here’s what you can do to cope.

Person looking a little sullen while working on tablet
The blues ain't nothing but a good vacation coming to an end.Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash

The holidays are officially over, and many of us are recovering from traveling long distances to reconnect with loved ones and take in some well-earned R&R. And while the vacation time could mean different things to people—catching up on competitive sports, consuming inordinate amounts of food, or finally confronting your racist uncle—one thing is almost ubiquitous: the looming sentiment of “oh no, I have to go to work again.”

It’s easy to understand why we get a little bummed at the prospect of reverting back to everyday life—dealing with the debilitating effects of jet lag is enough to take a person out of a good mood. But for a lot of folks, ever the most seasoned jet setters, the post-vacation blues can have actual health effects. “I absolutely feel sad after returning home from a trip,” says freelance journalist and travel writer Nneka Okona. “For me, the deflation starts around the last 24 hours of a trip. I feel really down and sometimes even teary; the more of a sensational experience, the harder and deeper the deflation tends to be.”

But if vacations are supposed to be a significant boon to our happiness and wellbeing, why do we crash mentally afterwards?

Jeroen Nawijn, a psychologist at the Breda University of Applied Sciences who’s studied vacations as they relate to quality of life, says that though people generally see a blissful boost on their days off, those benefits taper off quickly after returning home. “They most likely feel best during vacation because they have more freedom to do what they want,” he explains.

Suzanne Degges-White, a therapist and chair of the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University, echoes this sentiment. “Once we get back into the work world, the majority of us have to answer to someone about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and when we’ll be done,” she says. She also attributes the difficulty of reacclimating to the fact that quandaries and responsibilities don’t disappear when we go on vacation. “Many people dread the return as they know that problems may have stacked up in their absence. There may be a pile of new requests of their time on top of the unfinished tasks they left behind,” Degges-White adds.

She also cites the influence of transitioning from a looser sleep-wake pattern on vacation to a more strict and regimented bedtime schedule. That, combined with sluggishness from overeating (and drinking, if that’s your style) can put a real drag on a person’s wellbeing, she says.

Thankfully, there are ways to keep the vacation high going after you’ve put the good times past you. Prepare yourself in advance for the sharp adjustment by adding some extra padding between your travel and work dates, Nawijn says, even if it’s just a day or half a day. Thinking ahead could also include making a to-do list for your first week back, keeping your work and living spaces clean and organized for you return, and prioritizing relaxation as you get back into the swing of things, Degges-White says.

One more tip: start planning your next vacation right away. “The only thing that has continually worked for me is booking another trip as quickly as possible,” Okona says. “My blues are diminished greatly if I know I have something else to look forward to.” She also recommends nabbing a useful souvenir so that you have something to tie your new experiences with your life back home. (Instead of kitschy magnets and shot glasses, she opts for spice blends, unique snacks, and jams or jellies.)

Checking off these little tasks should overall, prepare you better for the reality that awaits post-vacation. And hey, if all else fails, you can always try manipulating your memories to trick yourself into happily ever after.