A travel pro's 'secret' for easing into work mode after a long vacation

Melanie Fish, second from left, shares how working for a travel company helped her prioritize time off.
Courtesy of subject

Remote work makes it easier than ever to take a working vacation — you can travel to a new location, log in during the day and essentially get away without having to use your PTO days. But a lot of people are coming back from these "breaks" even more burned out than when they left.

Some 61% of Americans who took a working vacation in the last year didn't consider them to be "true" vacations, according to Expedia's latest Vacation Deprivation study of 14,500 working adults across 16 countries. What's more, 72% of people who worked through their vacation reported feeling more burned out than ever.

Melanie Fish, head of global PR for Expedia Group Brands, knows this from experience. During the pandemic, she tried to take a working vacation from a rental house in the woods, "and it was actually stressful for me to hear my family getting ready for a hike while I was trying to reply to an email," she says. "It taught me that not every trend is a good one."

Fish recognizes it takes "age and experience" to feel comfortable taking a week off work and going completely off the grid. But she also sees it as a necessary management skill and models it for her employees: "As a leader, you're not doing your job if your team can't get along without you for a couple of days."

Expedia Group employees get 15 to 25 paid days off and up to $1,500 in travel and wellness reimbursements per year. They also get access to special hotel and travel discounts through their platforms.

Fish admits disengaging for a long vacation can come back to bite her, like when she recently returned from a week-long Florida beach trip to 3,000 unread emails. Here, she shares her secret for a smooth transition from vacation mode to work mode, plus what she learned from her European colleagues and the brutal advice she'd give to her 25-year-old self about checking her ego.

Her secret for transitioning from vacation to work mode: I like to keep it kind of a secret that I'm back for as long as possible. I set my out-of-office for a little bit longer than I am actually out, and I don't set Slack to active until I've caught up on what's happened for the past week. It doesn't always work. But just because I'm back in the office at 8 a.m. on Monday after a couple of days off doesn't mean people need me at 8 a.m. on Monday.

So go ahead and block that calendar for a couple hours. Keep that out of office message on. Keep Slack to inactive. Give yourself a chance to enter at a reasonable pace.

How to respond to a manager who doesn't respect time off: I have had amazing bosses that I am super clear with — "I am taking this time off, I will not be checking email, here's who to contact, or please text me if you truly need me" — and they've respected that.

I did have a boss one time who looked at me incredulously and said, "Well, I've just never heard of a person in your job who wasn't constantly on email even during vacation." In that moment, I had to take a deep breath, stand up straight and say, "If you need something different, please make that clear, and we can talk about it. But I do not check my email constantly when I'm on personal time off."

The obligation lies on the leaders of the company to model good behavior, and not only encourage people to take their time off, but not punish them for doing so.

How to decrease your workload to make space for time off: When you get a holiday off from work, look at the meetings that have been scheduled for that Monday and think, "Do I need to reschedule this meeting for Tuesday, or can we let it go for this week?" What good is the holiday if it doubles the workload you have to do on the day after?

What she's learned from her European colleagues: It helps to have a team in Europe. They do not mess around with time off, and it is inspirational. My European colleagues feel no need to apologize for the time off they take — and they shouldn't. They have bank holidays. Summer turns into an extremely slow time. And because it's universal in the culture, not just within one company, it normalizes the need for time off instead of making it something to be embarrassed about that you're not working.

What she'd tell her 25-year-old self about taking time off: I would tell my 25-year-old self: "You are not so important that your workplace can't get along without you for a couple of days." I would say that to my own 25-year-old self. I'm not gonna say it to the 25-year-olds on my team. Hopefully I'm modeling that behavior so it doesn't need to be said.

The ability to shut it completely down on vacation has come with age and experience. There absolutely was a time when I felt the need to constantly be tied to what was going on at work. And in hindsight, I'm not so sure that was the expectation of my workplace as much as it was my own ego that I thought they just couldn't possibly get by while I took three days off. And that's just silly.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Check out:

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This 27-year-old former NYSE trader went from making $12,000 to $650,000 in 4 years
27-year-old former NYSE trader went from making $12,000 to $650,000 in 4 years