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Lift off and re-entry

For years, from almost the moment my family hit the airport, I’d suddenly fall ill, negatively impacting the first week of our holiday as I dosed up on Lemsip. “Every time!” my wife would exclaim. 

I’d resolutely try to transition from ‘work James’ to ‘holiday James’ while secretly still thinking about work – and, not uncommonly, doing emails and taking calls for the first couple of days.

In the run up to the much needed holiday (respite) from work, I’d have spent an increasingly frenzied 10 days or so doing meetings for projects, briefing the team and writing comprehensive handover notes to try and cover every eventuality, so things wouldn’t unravel while I was away…

The closer the holiday departure date got, the more stressed I would become. As a result, my work days would get longer in order to cram more in.

Eating and hydrating properly were replaced with convenience calories, coffee and booze.

No wonder my immune system gave up the ghost as soon as my out of office reply was switched on. I’d run myself into the ground preparing for the break that was already needed in the first place.

As a result, our family holidays needed to be at least 10 days long (if not two weeks), since for the first 3-4 days I felt rubbish and work still dominated my consciousness. We’d have a decent week after that, where I’d recognisably be ‘myself’ again. Then, as the departure date approached, intrusive work thoughts would start to creep back in.

The inbox dread – the prospect of having to wade through a sea of messages to get back up to speed with the projects – as well as the thought of diving right back into the frying pan would start distracting me, and my presence wouldn’t feel so present once again.

Come Saturday, I’d be trying to grip onto that fading holiday feeling. Come Sunday, I’d spend the day pre-dreading Monday.

Inevitably, Monday would come and the prophecy would be fulfilled. I’d open my laptop to hundreds of emails – if not well over 1000 – as well as finding the team very keen to hand back the tasks they’d been babysitting so they could get back to their own work.

Come the next family holiday: repeat.

So how to break the pattern?

What about the handback?

Just as we would carefully consider the logistics of going on holiday, such as travelling to the airport and transferring at the other end, we’d do exactly the same to get home. In fact, we’d  organise both legs at the same time. So why wasn’t I doing the same at work?

I’d never thought of planning the handback as well as the handover.

I know when I return from annual leave, my diary is as clear as it’ll ever get for that week. Additionally,  I know exactly how things will pan out in terms of volume of emails and people wanting to give tasks back to me. So why wouldn’t I plan for this first week back at the same time as I was planning my departure?

Planning your return to work

Here’s how I do it now:

  • Plan the first 3 days (at least) and block my calendar accordingly

  • Schedule short catch up and handback meetings in advance so everyone knows and can plan their own activities around them

  • Allow time to evaluate existing emails and prioritise which need actioning before I go

  • Set up a ‘to’ folder and an ‘in cc’ folder. Let everyone know that I’ll only be looking at emails that are directly addressed to me. Emails I’ve just been cc’d to can wait (possibly forever)

  • Triage what came in when I was away and classify them using the Eisenhower matrix – only do the things that are really important and urgent

When it comes to handover notes and instructions, keep them really concise. Emphasise the extent to which your colleague is empowered to make a decision on your behalf, as well as who they can go to for advice if they’re not sure. I’d rather a decision be taken and the project move forward, than everyone get stuck in paralysis and a bigger issue grows as a result, especially one that could have been handled. I promise not to get cross if I disagree with any decision if it was taken in good faith – even if it’s not one I would have taken.

Basically nobody (sweeping generalisation alert) really properly reads handover notes anyway, especially if they’re really long…

It’s not just all about going on holiday

Interestingly, in my coaching work, I’ve noticed that maternity leave – and to a lesser extent, paternity leave – seem to create very similar countdown stresses as holiday handovers.

All the emphasis is on leaving, with little planning on how to come back. The result is that people feel marginalised and fearful for what might change while they’re away. What if some pre-planning could change that?

Similar rules could apply for returning to work after extended illness though a phased return. This does require some extra finesse, which is probably a subject for another day.

Although all of these people may not know exactly when they’ll be back at the time they leave, they can still plan for how they’ll approach it when they do. Sometimes, knowing what the next steps will be lessens the unknown and reduces the stress of it.

I urge you to give it a try. With prime holiday season upon us, there’s never been a better time. 

Take care,


Got feedback about this blog, or simply want to share your thoughts? I want to hear it. Let me know by replying to this email. 


Looking for a fresh start post-holiday?

If you’re crawling towards your holiday feeling like you’re on the edge of burnout, and already nervous about going back afterwards, then get in touch. Let’s work out a way to turn the second half of 2024 around.  

07855 315 753

in: James Pickles. Connect with me for thoughts on:

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