You’ve just returned from the trip of a lifetime, yet instead of feeling rejuvenated and relaxed, you’re just depressed, cranky, and bummed to be home. You’re not alone.
THE PROPELLERS on the outboard motors have barely gained purchase of the glass-clear Caribbean waters; the island is still a stone’s throw from the skiff; and my girlfriend, B, is … crying? She should be laughing, doing somersaults, and standing on the bow, screaming “I’m the queen of the world!” I mean, we’ve just concluded a mind-blowing vacation at Cayo Espanto, a private Belizean island resort, and we still have a few hours left to cruise around the sand-swept town of San Pedro and to take snapshots of the golf-cart-loving locals. But nope, those are definitely tears — big ones — and they’re not tears of joy.
Perplexed, as if this were some sort of optical illusion (or humidity-induced special effect), I foolishly ask, “Are you crying?”
“Yes,” she blubbers. “I just don’t want to go back home.”
It’s at this point I remember my Oscar Wilde. A man fond of his own vacations to Paris and Algiers, Wilde once wrote in The Chameleon, “The condition of perfection is idleness.” Though he wasn’t exactly ruminating on a tear-jerking getaway, the sentiment really seems to get to the heart of our situation. And the closer we got to our home in New York — mentally and physically — the less perfect things became.
AT CAYO, WE HAD our own houseman, Jonathan, who brought us a rope-bound supplement of the New York Times, freshly squeezed strawberry juice, and a custom-tailored breakfast every morning. Our 1,500-squarefoot bungalow — which we’d been told was a favorite of Leonardo DiCaprio, who’d recently purchased his own island just across from Ambergris Caye — had a heated plunge pool, two private docks, and a hammock that never let me get more than five minutes into Islands in the Stream before swinging me into a cozy little slumber.
Back in Manhattan, there were deadlines, snowstorms, a cramped studio (no ocean view), and a big, lumbering Labrador with a mean case of cabin fever awaiting us. B’s crying was just the beginning of our descent into the postvacation blues, or PVBs, as I soon found out through some intense Internet research (a.k.a. googling) upon our return home. This wasn’t going to be pretty.
Fortunately, we weren’t alone in our funk. In fact, the late Holy Father himself, Pope John Paul II, was quoted as telling his flock during his own summer vacation in 1998 how they might cope with the PVBs. “I am trying to imagine what goes on in the mind of those returning from a period of relaxation … All this could even be depressing,” he said to a crowd of pilgrims while just outside Rome, in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. “But there is an antidote to this depression. To have in our hearts a great ideal, authentic values, which can give meaning to our life.” Unfortunately, the Pontiff ’s remedy, while motivational, didn’t provide much comfort.
So I sought out a more tangible end to this melancholy from a handful of mental-health professionals. What I quickly learned was that the PVBs aren’t considered a clinical problem — i.e., we wouldn’t find the term listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (on our bookshelf ) or in any peer-reviewed medical journals. Moreover, we didn’t catch the PVBs from anyone on the island, and they don’t require medicine or therapy. Phew! The bad news? They aren’t something to just brush off lightly, and there is a good chance we will experience them again in the future.
“Anecdotally, it’s certainly a phenomenon that exists,” explains Christopher Rotolo, PhD, a professor of industrial/organizational psychology at New York University. “But if you’re trying to get answers as to why it exists, you’ll probably get a different answer from everyone you ask.” To help us put these various perspectives in context, Rotolo suggests we examine Gartner’s Hype Cycle, which essentially seeks to break down the emergence of any new technology by category.
“Anything, whether it be a product launch or starting a new job, has this initial high, followed by, as Gartner calls it, ‘a trough of disillusionment’ and a stasis, where you level off,” says Rotolo. “It’s sort of a sad statement, but in any vacation, specifically one to an exotic locale, there’s typically nothing that great that awaits you when you come back home. It’s the difference between doing what you want and doing something you have to do — and most people see their jobs as the latter.”
As a freelance writer, my schedule is more or less flexible. My girlfriend’s? Not so much. Hence the disproportionate tear ratio on the boat ride to San Pedro. Working a “fun but highly stressful” job in the New York fashion industry, B basically lives and breathes work Monday through Friday. So getting her to commit to a four-day jaunt, even one that partially falls on a weekend, is a feat, one accomplished only after her boss orders her to go. Usually, though, come the Monday after one of these rare getaways, it’s back to business as usual.
Unfortunately, upon our return this time, phones, which were practically nonexistent on Cayo, delivered a steady cacophony of loud messages and even louder ringtones. And lunch, which was now eaten in a cubicle, became a lifeless disappointment, compared with the fruit-infused surf and turf we’d had round-the-clock in Belize.
“I think the majority of people who go on vacation, if they haven’t planned, will be affected in some way when they come back,” says Dianne Flaherty, a clinical social worker at the Providence Center in Rhode Island. For nearly two decades, Flaherty has conducted stress-management seminars for various companies — from manufacturing corporations to accounting firms — teaching employees how to avoid postvacation doldrums. She believes it’s not a matter of where you go on vacation, be it Bali or the backyard, but rather how much you prepare for the postvacation that will keep your mood in check.
“I just went to West Palm Beach to visit family in April. It’s a familiar vacation; I go there every year,” says Flaherty. However, the introduction of a new pocket PC, and some procrastination over an annual marketing report, left her not only with the PVBs but also with some serious postvacation resentment. “I was regretting that I didn’t get the work done before I left. And it’s like, practice what you preach, because one of the things we talk about [in the seminar] is to get done what you need to get done before you go away — but I didn’t do that. So I ended up needing to take care of my responsibilities while I was on vacation and foolishly checking my e-mail every day.”
In other words, if you really want to know what’s mucking up the modern American holiday, you don’t have to look too far. It’s that nasty four-letter word you blaspheme with every Sunday: work.
“In the last few years, generations X and Y just can’t seem to disconnect, with all the e-mail, IM, and text messaging,” says John Putzier, a Pennsylvania-based organizational psychologist who agrees with Flaherty about the need to unplug from the workplace. “My wife and I are baby boomers, so we have no problem [unplugging], but it’s just getting worse for the younger generation. And a lot of it is self-inflicted. The world won’t end if you don’t read your e-mail for a week.” But convincing modern professionals — especially those in high-stress jobs like B’s — that a week away from the workplace won’t kill them is easier said than done.
“The reality of [certain] high-paying jobs is that they kind of own you,” says Anne Tergesen, a 43-year-old mother of three who works in Manhattan as a personal finance writer for Business Week. “My normal life isn’t so bad; it’s just relentless.” To maximize her off time with her three boys (who are nine, seven, and five years old), Tergesen and her husband, an attorney who “always has his BlackBerry with him,” take separate vacations throughout the year. “We each only get a set amount of time off,” she says. “So he takes them camping for a week, I take them hiking in California for a week, and then we all meet up in Maine for a week.”
Though the arrangement allows the boys to have three weeks out of the city each year, it doesn’t leave Tergesen and her husband much time for a couple’s holiday. Nor does it mean work stops while they’re gone. She laments, “My husband’s good in that when he goes away, he doesn’t let the nervousness from work bother him. He just knows 10 percent of his vacation time is going to be spent on work. He never gets a full break, and he accepts that.”
Normally, Tergesen’s annual summer getaway with her boys to her sister’s cabin in the Sierra Nevada leaves her feeling “really vegged out” and “just very relaxed,” but during last year’s outing, the crunch of deadlines got the better of her. “After a week, there was a total panic because I wasn’t meeting my deadlines. When I came back, I just sat and stared at the computer. And e-mail [had] made it worse. You can check e-mail all day and think you’re accomplishing something, but really you’re not doing anything,” she says. “I [had] tried experimenting with my e-mail, checking it every other day at these Internet cafés. But it basically just told me that it’s not better to be in touch. It just bums you out. There’s a creative component to my job, so I need to recharge my batteries. In that respect, I guess my experiment worked.”
According to Rotolo, who’s conducted productivity surveys for various organizations, including IBM and the FBI, employees aren’t the only ones paying attention to the effects of the PVBs. “Some clients don’t want to survey in September or January, because everyone’s just getting back from vacation,” he says. “The more-savvy companies know there are better times in the year to survey, when people are engaged in their work and not coming and going — like the dead of winter or March and April.”
Flaherty echoes this sentiment. “When you have a good vacation, you come back and you’re talking about the vacation a lot,” she says. “If you’re looking at it from a productivity perspective — productivity gets impacted by the fact that people go away, [and then when] they get back to work, they can’t transition the next day, so they’re chatting about their vacation all day and disrupting other people who need to get their work done.”
But what does all this postvacation psychobabble really mean? Should we never leave our desks?
One way — perhaps the best way, according to Rotolo — to skirt the PVB problem without going stir crazy under your new super size workload is to take more weekend getaways. “The more frequent, shorter trips you take, the less of an impact you’ll feel,” he says. “I’ve gone to places like Australia for two weeks, and it takes a long time to get back to work, probably more with jet lag. With the shorter trips, you don’t experience that as much; the transition is easier, and you can start thinking about the next one.” He’s not the only one touting the convergence of longer hours and multiple short vacations.
Says Putzier, “It’s cheaper, you can do it more throughout the year, and you don’t have to worry about missing much at work. It’s like vacationing on the installment plan.” Putzier also assured me that any postvacation malaise, which he defines as “more of a disappointment than a depression,” shouldn’t ever last more than a week. That was borne out by our experience. While B and I experienced a slump for a few days — her funk a little more pronounced than mine — once we got a few parties and business dinners under our belts, we were able to upshift back to (Manhattan) island pace.
Of course, if you just can’t bear the thought of the postvacation blues, Putzier did offer another, decidedly less attractive, solution. “Go somewhere that’s [really awful], like [on] a reality TV show. Then work will look pretty good.”
I think we’ll stick with the long-weekend plan. In fact, isn’t Easter coming up soon?
Five Tips for Battling the PVBs
Don’t leave a mess: The day before you go away, clean off your desk and organize everything so that there’s at least calm and organization when you return. Also, assign someone to answer questions for you during your absence so you don’t come back to a deluge.
Plan for the worst: Depression (or bad weather) can set in anytime during your vacation. What you do during your time away has an impact. So make it count.
Stay connected — but only if you have to: Make sure there are specific times when people can contact you in case of an emergency, but don’t make your availability open-ended. And if you’ve got to check your e-mail, do it just once a day.
Get home early and work out: Spend a day or two at home before you go back to work. That way, you can have a normal weekend to get readjusted to your time zone. And try to do some physical exercise when you get back; it helps battle jet lag.
Make some more plans: As is the case with anyone who’s planned a wedding, you’ve probably looked forward to and planned this vacation for a long time. But once the honeymoon’s over, it’s back to reality. So start looking ahead to your next big (or small) event.