Top tips on how to switch off this holiday season

By on 21/12/2020
Christmas break: changing your clothes can help your brain transition from work to rest mode. Credit: Євгенія Височина/Unsplash

The festive season is a difficult period for many – and this year, social distancing rules and ongoing work commitments threaten to make it much tougher. Wellbeing consultant Ramin Salehi offers some advice on how to relax and recuperate, even if you can’t avoid work entirely

This has been the year of crisis mode, with public servants working from home to protect people from the health and economic costs of COVID-19. And while knowing that what you do really makes a difference is good for us – bringing meaning and satisfaction to our careers – that sense of mission can also bring pressure. It’s important to remember that relaxation and self-care are not just luxuries: they are essential to avoid burn-out and prepare us for the challenges and uncertainties staff will face in the new year.

Last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included burn-out in its International Classification of Diseases – noting that, while not a medical condition, burn-out is an “occupational phenomenon”. Caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, the WHO says, burn-out has three key characteristics: feelings of exhaustion; “increased mental distance from one’s job”, or feeling negative or cynical; and “reduced professional efficacy”.

So getting space away from work this festive season is essential; but it’s also harder than usual. Many of us are now working from home, which makes us more accessible to work and work more accessible to us. In addition, many of the global challenges are still there: COVID does not know it’s Christmas. So here are some tips to help you to switch off this year. They are ideals, and it’s important to work out what is right for you – but they are designed to be a starting point, whether you are taking the whole period off or need to keep working.

Tips and advice to switch off

Planning is essential. Start prioritising what tasks you have left at work and focus on completing the critical ones, leaving others that can wait until you return. This can mean saying no to people making demands on your time, but having a priority list helps you explain why you need to set those boundaries. Also write your to-do list for when you return: this is a subtle signal to your brain that one thing is ending and another is beginning. 

As well as organising work, make a plan for how you want to spend your break. It’s important to be intentional about switching off, and Christmas itself can be stressful; carving out time ahead of schedule can really help you to build in opportunities for self-care. What COVID-safe activities would help you to relax?

Don’t forget demarcation. Often, in the office, there are certain signs that the Christmas wind-down is underway – whether that’s the work party, the flow of festive treats, or even just the more relaxed attire. With many of us working from home this year, we will miss those signals. So when you finish work, try to recreate leaving the office. For example, pack your equipment away so you cannot see it, or have a small celebration with those in your household. This helps your brain transition into rest mode.

Give yourself cues. Remind yourself to relax – for example, by setting reminders on your phone that this is time to enjoy yourself. This is not failsafe, but it can be a helpful prompt if you are slipping into work mode and also reinforces and renews your festive-rest intention.

If you do need to work, set expectations early. Identify times when you will work and plan them into your time. Be clear about this from the start with family – and yourself. This will help to ensure you do not disappoint those around you, and be structured about work time and down time.

It’s hard for our brains to transition from work into rest, especially if we do not have the usual signals of leaving the house, the commute and being in the office. If you are working from home during the festive season, try to mimic these cues. Get your laptop out when engaging with work and pack it away out of sight when you finish. Change into your work clothes when you begin, but then get back into your day clothes or pyjamas for down time. Stretching, listening to a podcast or going for a walk can also support your brain to go from work mode to rest, helping you make the most of the time you do get away from office duties.

And finally, don’t underestimate the power of email. If you are off work, set a clear out-of-office response so people know that you’re taking a break; you could share contact details so people can get hold of you in an emergency, but it’s important to set the expectation that you won’t reply to everyday emails. There might be a temptation to check your email – even just so that you stop worrying. But once the inbox is open it is really hard to not respond; if you really want to check in, plan this time in, and then make sure you transition your brain back to relaxed mode once you have finished.

Think about the effects of sending an email on others too. Quite often if we are working, we will send the email with a note saying “do not respond until after the holidays”. But in reality, this is more likely to trigger people to see what it is – and then they are in work mode, with everything that follows from that. If you need to send the message because it is urgent, that’s fine. But otherwise, consider drafting messages to send after the break or using the scheduling tool.

The guiding principle to remember is that if you take some time to recuperate, your future self will thank you. This is not only essential for us; it’s the only way to ensure longevity, efficiency and productivity in our roles. Hold onto that as hard as you can, take care, and enjoy yourself.

Ramin Salehi is managing director of Cornerstone Training, a workplace wellbeing consultancy, and supports assistive technology experts Microlink with special projects.

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