How to Unplug from Work on Vacation

Whether constant connectivity or fear of missing out while away, unplugging during vacation can be challenging but discover how to do better

Chairs near water
Victoria Yap used a trip to the North Carolina mountains to recharge last summer. Photo courtesy of Victoria Yap.

During a Memorial Day camping trip last year to Mount Mitchell State Park, Yap found her own break. Limited cell reception allowed her to enjoy nature's beauty and spend uninterrupted time with her loved ones.

“When I came back to work, I felt like a new person,” Yap said.

We caught up with some Duke experts, who explained that balancing work and personal life boundaries requires conscious effort and setting clear expectations with oneself and colleagues.

Disconnect from Tech

With the post-pandemic increase of remote and hybrid work, the lines between work and personal lives have become even more complicated.

Duke Personal Assistance Service's Sarah Smith.

Sarah Smith, a counselor with Duke’s Personal Assistance Service, points out that with work tools nearby and a familiarity with working from home, remote and hybrid employees can find it hard to stop working and gain needed separation from work, even on vacation.

“Many of us are no longer able to maintain our boundaries and be fully engaged when we’re not working,” Smith said. “That can lead to us missing out on important things, such as time with our family or time doing things that make us happy.”

When we take time off from work, Smith said it’s especially important to intentionally reinforce boundaries to ensure work won’t encroach on time to recharge.

Smith said, to disconnect effectively from work, set an away message on your email with the duration of your absence and back-up contact; coordinate with colleagues to delegate important tasks; and store work tools out of sight to resist the temptation of using them.

If your position allows, Smith also recommends disconnecting work email from your smartphone by unlinking it to your email app, or removing the email app from your home screen, and then re-connecting when back at work.

“Emails are a big part of day-to-day life,” Smith said. “So if you’re away from work, you don’t want your work email right there each time you look at your phone. What happens is, you are easily reminded of work and you may see something in your email that you’ll want to respond to.”

Get Past the Guilt

Duke’s world class education, research and patient care is driven by its dedicated and hard-working staff and faculty. But as Dr. Tyson Pankey, assistant professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, points out, a workplace culture defined by a passionate commitment to a noble mission can at times make it difficult to step away for needed breaks.

Dr. Tyson Pankey of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

There may be pressure from work expectations or a fear of missing out on important updates or opportunities. Some individuals may also struggle with a sense of responsibility, feeling that they should always be available.

“To get to a premier institution like Duke, it likely took a lot of hard work, persistence and sacrifice,” Pankey said. “When everyone around you is highly skilled in their role, it can reinforce and normalize this idea that, to be 'excellent' means to be working on something all the time. And so, what can happen, and what people often notice, is that taking a break can cause feelings of guilt. As a result, many individuals struggle with having free time because it activates feelings of guilt and makes them feel as though they should be 'doing something productive' with their time.”

Pankey said a helpful way to process those feelings of guilt is to remind yourself that stepping away to recharge will help you to maintain the passion you feel toward your work and may give your brain the rest it needs to generate new ideas and solutions when you return. Remember that your colleagues will help to keep things going during your absence and that paid time off is something you have earned and deserve. A properly functioning workplace is designed for you to be able to safely and comfortably take time away.

“It’s important to recognize that institutions, including ours at Duke, are designed so that if and when individuals are not here, the system or team will not shut down," Pankey said “Our professional jobs are only one aspect of our identities, they’re not the entirety of who we are. It is vital to our own health and well-being to also invest in those other key areas of our lives that bring us meaning. Your family, community, and personal interests also deserve your time and attention."

Make a Plan

The idea of not doing something that we know to be good for us – such as taking a clean break from work – is something that behavioral scientists have spent plenty of time trying to understand.

The Center for Advanced Hinsight's Nina Bartmann.

In her work with the Center for Advanced Hindsight, Senior Behavioral Researcher Nina Bartmann, looks into the “Intention-Action Gap,” or the phenomenon of people not doing things that they know to be beneficial, such as taking medication or exercising. Bartmann said it’s common for people to fall into the same trap with vacations. They know they need to take time off, but they don’t.

“Who doesn’t want to take a vacation?” Bartmann said. “On the surface, everybody agrees that taking time off from work is a great thing. But that intention and action don’t always go together.”

Bartmann said that a proven way to close that gap is to simply make a plan for a vacation.

“That sounds easy, but to intentionally say ‘I’m going to make a plan for a vacation or some time away from work’ does a lot,” Bartmann said.

Bartmann said that the act of making a firm plan and alerting colleagues and managers that you will be unavailable during your time off has multiple benefits. A plan should include who will cover key tasks and deadlines while you’re out, which can alleviate feelings of anxiety or guilt. It also makes people accountable for their own well-being, since making plans known will make it more likely we follow-through.

“We also tend to get a boost of happiness from just going through the motion of planning something,” Bartmann said. “And we also tend to be more productive when we’re working toward a goal.”

As you enjoy time off his summer, share your photos for a chance at prizes with our Duke Time Off campaign.

Send story ideas, shout-outs and photographs through our story idea form or write

Follow Working@Duke on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.