Why Am I Stressed On Vacation? A New Study Reveals Why Downtime Can Be Debilitating

It can be hard enough to really turn your brain off and relax at the end of the day, right? And unfortunate as it may seem, that struggle can sometimes double when you're on vacation. There's always that nagging feeling that you're forgetting something, or that there's still a list of things to do no matter where you are or how much time off you requested. So if you've ever wondered why you're feeling stressed on vacation, even when you're relaxing on a beach in Costa Rica, a new study may have found the answer.

The research, which has been published in the online journal the Academy of Management Proceedings, found that those feelings of stress can strike on vacation when you least expect them to because, in today's world, so many of us are more or less always available to co-workers and supervisors via email, text, Skype, Slack, and the like. After surveying 142 full-time working adults, the researchers wrote in the study's abstract, "we found that detrimental health and relationship effects of expectations were mediated by negative affect. This includes crossover effects of electronic communication expectations on partner health and martial satisfaction."

In other words, it's not exactly that you're stressed because of any actual work you have to do, but rather, you might feel strung out because there's always a sort of subtle, implicit expectation that you'll receive an email from your boss at any time of day, and worse, that you may be expected to actually respond, even if your OOO time has been on the calendar for weeks. What's more, those "crossover effects" the researchers referenced mean that your stress about work expectations can easily carry over to your SO, friends, and loved ones.

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William Becker, a co-author of the study and associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech, said in a press release about the research,

...the insidious impact of 'always on' organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit — increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries. Our research exposes the reality: 'flexible work boundaries' often turn into 'work without boundaries,' compromising an employee's and their family's health and well-being.

He added,

If the nature of a job requires email availability, such expectations should be stated formally as a part of job responsibilities.

So Becker's suggestion to this dilemma of work-life balance, for one, is to establish, as soon as possible, very clear rules and boundaries about what's expected of you during work and non-work hours, respectively, including email availability. And if you've been at your job already for a while, and you think it's "too late" to untangle your work and personal life, try to set up a time to discuss these boundaries with your boss and/or co-workers. It doesn't hurt to have a clear discussion about these things, and you never know what this type of conversation might bring in the end.

Now, this isn't the first time it's been shown that blurring boundaries between home and work life can be bad for your health: For instance, the American Psychological Association's 2015 Stress in America survey found that people who report feeling stressed at work often have a tendency to feel just as irritable, angry, nervous, and/or anxious at home.

The reality is, smartphones, video chatting, etc. clearly aren't going anywhere any time soon, which means your "constant availability" isn't a temporary thing, either. Again, find some time to sit down with your co-workers to establish those work-life boundaries, and as Becker recommended in his study's press release, consider practicing mindfulness on a regular basis, which the researcher said can help you "be present" in whatever it is you're doing on vacation or during your downtime. Remember, you deserve that beach time in Costa Rica.