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Got some annual leave accrued? Taking a proper end-of-year break will do wonders for your stress levels and your productivity when you return to the office.

After almost three years of disruption, the average Australian worker has accrued a whopping 24 days of annual leave. With borders open and the country and wider world feeling safer, there’s never been a better time to enjoy a much-needed summer holiday.

You might feel like you have too much work to do or that your firm depends on your presence and contribution so much that a holiday is impossible. Perhaps you deride the thought of a week or two in flip-flops by the pool.

But here’s the thing: taking a break decreases stress and burnout, refreshes your perspective and gives productivity a boost on your return to work. Even better, you don’t need to travel somewhere exotic or leave your email unchecked for weeks on end to reap the benefits.

Exploring the benefits of annual leave

The biggest benefit of taking a holiday is also one of the simplest. Work can be stressful, and temporarily removing this stressor offers immediate benefits in terms of decreasing feelings of burnout and improving mood.

“Taking a proper break gives you permission to switch off and flip the nervous system into its rest and digest state, which it probably hasn’t been in for a while, as opposed to the fight or flight state,” says Stephanie Thompson, a corporate psychologist and executive coach at Insight Matters.

Executive coach Rachel Setti, director of Thriving Edge Coaching and Consulting, says the switch to remote and hybrid work during the pandemic heightens the need for time away from work.

“Burnout is on the rise, and that’s coincided with people working from home more,” she says. “What’s happening when people work from home is that they’re finding it much harder to switch off as we’ve created this new culture of being online all the time.

“Using this summer break as an opportunity to recharge offers even greater benefits than perhaps in the past.”

Switching off from work

Do you need to go overseas, drive for hours to a far-away locale or step completely outside of your comfort zone to truly disconnect? Not necessarily, explains Setti.

“You could be lying on a beach 10,000 kilometres away from your office, logging on to your emails, even though you’re in this idyllic place on the other side of the world, versus just hanging out with your kids in your backyard but not logging on to your emails,” she says.

“The latter is a smarter way of switching off as it’s about how well you’re able to switch off from what you’re doing, not so much where you are.”

It takes time to properly wind down, and Thompson says end of year is the perfect time to enjoy a longer break at the same time as your colleagues, clients and other members of your family.

“This is when it’s practically and logistically easiest to take a chunk of time where you can really enjoy the benefits of winding down and genuinely switching off because there’s less pressure to get back into it until well into January,” she says.

Rather than wait for the right window of time in your schedule, be proactive about your intention to take leave. “Plan just like you would around other professional commitments and don’t take on other things because you know this time is scheduled,” Thompson says.

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The end of the year is the perfect time to enjoy a longer break at the same time as your colleagues, clients and other members of your family

Managing expectations while you’re away

While Setti recommends “complete disengagement” from emails and everything related to work, she acknowledges this approach may be unrealistic for many lawyers. Instead of always being available, she recommends scheduling regular, short check-ins with your team.

“Arrange a specific time in the week, or twice a week, where you get online and your team or even clients can ask you questions, or you can have a quick check-in, but that’s it,” Setti says.

Thompson agrees and recommends setting clear expectations about what you will and won’t be doing while you’re out of office. “You might choose a time of day that’s optimal for your team. Make sure they know when you’ll be available and not to expect moment-to-moment responses.”

This approach also has the potential to benefit junior staff in your absence. “If you’re a leader of a team or a senior associate and you’ve got people who depend on you throughout the year for help and support, this is a prime opportunity to help them find their professional legs,” Setti says.

“You’re setting them up so they feel confident and empowered to step into your shoes and hold the reins while you’re away, which is great for their professional development.”

And when you return, there’s a good to great chance you’ll feel refreshed and better able to tackle a new year of work. Research shows annual leave improved productivity by up to 40 per cent and reduced the likelihood of sick leave by 28 per cent, according to a study of US employees.

“Because you’re in different places with different people, holidays provide an opportunity to reorganise your thoughts and reframe the way you’re looking at certain issues and problems in the workplace,” Setti says.

“When you come back to work, the same problems that you left behind are still there, but your perspective has changed, and you have new ideas.”