How To (Realistically) Take Time Off During The Pandemic

Summer may be ending, but use your PTO anyway.

A woman swims on a flamingo pool float. Taking time off in a pandemic has benefits for burnout, experts say - here's how to take time off during coronavirus.
Andrea Comi/Moment/Getty Images

"OOO... whatever that means in a pandemic," the auto reply read. I had been emailing with someone who enabled this message in the middle of a Tuesday, letting people know that even though she couldn't get away, she was away from her inbox, at the very least. "Sorry for the delay, I was actually taking PTO," another recent email began, the surprise of "actually" tangible through the screen.

As the summer slips away, those who are privileged to be working from home may want to get their vacation days in, even if they're not quite going on vacation. But what does taking time off in a pandemic look like? Is closing your laptop equivalent to opening a beach umbrella in the summer of 2020?

The Benefits Of Taking Time Off, Even If You're Just Chilling At Home

Not all workers are able to take time off in pandemic, but if you're able to, it's important to take advantage. According to a survey conducted in July by Met Life, an insurance company, over 66% of workers have reported symptoms that fit the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of burnout — feeling exhaustion, distance or negative emotions about work, and reduced productivity.

Stepping away from the job for a few days, or even a few hours, can be restorative, according to therapist Caroline Given, L.C.S.W. "While I focus a great deal on how to take steps in your daily working life to minimize burnout, I also emphasize the importance of vacations as a necessary component of treatment, especially now," she tells Bustle. "Vacations are an investment in your ability to continue to do sustainable quality work instead of collapsing from exhaustion," Given says.

According to Amy Jane Griffiths, Ph.D, N.C.S.P., a licensed psychologist and professor at Chapman University, "people are frequently not aware of their mental and physical health needs if they are constantly plugged in and plugging away at work," especially if your office culture previously saw working from home as a kind of vacation.

How To Take A Vacation During The Pandemic

Angela, 30, a local news reporter in Colorado, says she felt burnt out at the start of summer, and decided to take a couple of days off for the first time since Christmas. "I drove to a mountain town with my sister. We stayed in a condo Airbnb and did outdoor activities only — it was lovely," she tells Bustle. "It definitely helped restore my ability to feel positive and motivated," she adds. As for actually unplugging, Angela says "disconnecting from the news and deleting Twitter" helped create a scenario where she was more refreshed and focused when she plugged back into work mode.

Melissa, 33, is a lawyer who says she's unintentionally taken on more work since the pandemic due to blurred boundaries. "This week is allegedly my vacation, but I've already been online 50 times today," she tells Bustle. "My original plan was to do no work, but people keep emailing like 'I know you're out but can you just do this one thing' and I don't know how to say no," she says. Her amended plan is to log online for an hour each morning and then try to disconnect. "I went to the dentist and grocery shopping, that was my excitement for the day. If I can just veg out on the couch for a few days, I'll be fine."

For Claire, 32, an independent consultant who has always worked at home, it's becoming increasingly difficult to rationalize taking time off, especially with everyone else in her life is stuck at home, too. "I want to take a trip and experience a change of scenery, but everything feels very exhausting," she says. Trying to plan a trip started to feel like work, so she decided to just stay home and online. What's more, she's concerned about her safety. "I'm terrified of getting COVID because I'm self-employed, and if I don't work I don't get paid." Instead, before the summer is over, Claire plans to find one day to set up an out of office message and turn off her alarm clock. Then, she'll indulge in a drawn-out take-out, wine, and chill session in the evening — with her laptop as far away as possible.

How To Prepare For Your Pandemic Time Off

If you *are* in a position to travel, the WHO asks that you take precautions, like considering the COVID status at your destination and checking yourself regularly for coronavirus symptoms And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asks travelers to ensure that they've tested negative and quarantined properly before traveling to a location that has a low infection rate. While people have been camping and taking road trips for months already, it's important to continue to practice proper COVID-19 camping practices like opting for camp sites that are not at capacity, keeping a six foot, masked distance, even on trails, and getting all of your supplies before you hit the road to minimize the amount of shopping and stops necessary.

For people who can't physically get away, behaving like you're in a faraway locale will still make you feel like you're OOO. "A vacation should be a disruption from your ordinary life and a separation from work," Given says. Creating this separation will require some firm boundaries. "There is definitely a temptation to revert to typical habits in your same space, so you have to be vigilant of that ahead of time and prepare accordingly," she says. "This might mean setting up strict no-contact boundaries and auto-replies with colleagues and being very clear about what an actual emergency/urgent message is." Griffiths suggests creating a strict vacation schedule that you honor at all costs, featuring activities like "go on a walk" and "do yoga" and "close your laptop."

Even if your WFH routine is relatively comfortable as-is, do one thing differently to make it feel like a vacation. "I tell my clients to look closely at the components that make up a typical satisfying vacation where they would be traveling: a change of scenery, interacting with nature, doing different activities, wearing different clothes, eating different food, mentally checking out from social media and news, sleeping in — identifying activities that can provide a similar emotional experience is the key," Given says. Sleep in the guest room if you have one, or even the other side of the bed. Order dinner if you usually cook. Wear clothes that you'd pack for a vacation. Shake up your schedule. Do anything that makes this time different. But most importantly, actually take the initiative to time off — even if it's just a mental health day.


Caroline Given, L.C.S.W., a licensed therapist and Millennial life coach.

Amy Jane Griffiths, Ph.D, N.C.S.P., a licensed psychologist, and professor at Chapman University