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Sanity & The City, Part 5 - Managing Holidays from the Workplace

We asked a former patient from one of our hospitals to detail his personal experience of mental health in the workplace as part of a series of Priory blogs. This is the fifth post in a six-part series entitled ‘Sanity and the City’, and gives an honest and insightful look into his own experience of mental health and managing holidays at work… 

We are all familiar with the pressures and stresses of preparing to go on holiday – there’s the packing at home, running over the logistics of where you have to be and when, and of course there’s the final dash at work to tie up all the loose ends, hand over work to colleagues and try and create some time and space to relax.

But when you’re finally on that plane, do you find yourself mentally still in the office? I used to be quite bad at this. I could be in the most remote locations and still find myself drawn back into the world of work – not by a phone or an email, just in my head.

Was everything OK without me? Had Project X gone sideways? Was Y doing what he was supposed to? Did I leave the iron on? Well, admittedly the last one is not work related, but that kind of obsessional thinking can go along with the anxiety we can all feel when we are not in control.

In retrospect, I can see I was being over-cautious; anticipating any potential threat and making sure it was neutralised or at least analysed to death in my mind before I felt satisfied. This is also part of my perfectionist drive – if it was not 100% covered, there was a risk I would get it in the neck, and that, for me, was the worst thing that could happen. Disapproval! How would I cope?

The reality of the working environment

Now, lots of people who don’t work in the city will tell you there is no need to be in touch with work when you are on holiday – just shut the door and walk away. But that is not the reality of the working environment. It’s fast moving, unpredictable and sometimes you are the only person who can make something happen. I know it’s like this in other sectors too, and in most senior management roles everywhere, but it’s the norm in the city.

But there are different ways of handling this. You can be on email all the time, chipping in, and effectively just working from another location. Or you can control your accessibility and allocate time for you to think about work and to allay your fears by running through emails at a specific time when you can still safely intervene if necessary, but mostly just hit file or delete then put the phone down.

I prefer the latter – realistically I need to clear the 100+ emails I get each day to make sure I am aware of key issues and have sorted the wheat from the chaff. I can make a quick call if something needs my urgent attention. I can also shrug my shoulders and walk away. This has to be the healthiest thing to do most of the time.

A sense of perspective is key – am I really so important you can’t live without me for a week? If I am that integral there is a risk for the company that needs addressing.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

A certain adjustment is going to happen when you go on holiday – your mind and body need to decelerate and acclimatise to what is actually an unusual and out of the ordinary occurrence – your time is your own for more than two days. So I don’t worry that my mind is racing at first and I am full of adrenaline. I think it’s natural.

But instead of carrying this with me throughout my break, I also use some techniques from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to ease the transition.

A key belief in ACT is that trying not to worry is self-defeating. But if you can live with the worries and just accept their existence, they don’t need to be dominating you. They are passengers on the bus, but you are the driver – it’s up to you where you want to go with them.

There is an ACT technique where you imagine your worries as being a radio blaring constantly in the background. This has the benefit of reminding me that my thoughts are not me – they are just thoughts. 

It’s a way of defusing negative thought patterns by creating some distance between me and them. I can notice the process of thinking rather than identifying with the thoughts. Once I have done this, I can turn that radio down more easily.

It’s THE difference between me saying ‘I am anxious’ and me saying ‘I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am anxious’. Try saying both of those phrases. When I do that, I feel the first one in my gut but when it comes to the second I could be talking about someone else altogether. It really makes a difference to how I think and feel.

I was on holiday last week and all the above came into play. But by giving myself allocated times to check in on work email (30 mins between 5 and 6 if you must know) and removing the temptation to compulsively check (leave the phone in the hotel room – someone else will always have one), I was able to have a refreshing break. No-one died because I wasn’t there. Surprise, surprise!

Tip of the month

This month I have been trying to bring more compassion into my work. I find it difficult managing under-performance with people as it means I have to be hard with people who are often doing their best, but for whatever reason not making the grade. This is my least favourite part of my work. I can find myself filled with negativity for that person because they are making my life difficult and taking up a lot of my time. What I have learned is that this does not benefit me in any way and neither does it do them any good. So it helps to divorce the performance from the behaviour and to make sure the person knows you make that distinction. It also means I need to sidestep the easy route of condemning somebody outright. The payoff is that I avoid causing myself unnecessary suffering and spare the other person from feeling that they are defined by their work performance alone.

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