Managing your legal career

How to curb absence anxiety when you take annual leave

“The primary purpose of paid annual leave is to allow and encourage every employee to renew their physical and mental capabilities and to remain a fully productive employee. Employees are encouraged to request leave during each year in order to achieve this purpose.”

If the purpose of taking annual leave is to recharge (physically and mentally) in order to maintain decent productivity levels at work, an inability to ‘switch off’, or worse, working while you don’t have to, defeats its purpose.

A Glassdoor study carried out last year revealed that 23 per cent of UK employees on annual leave regularly checked their emails and 15 per cent continued working.

One of the major motivators for this is absence anxiety: a fear that everything’s going to go wrong when away from the office:

  • “What if our client has an issue and I’m the only person who knows how to fix it?”
  • “What if I’ve forgotten to communicate something in my handover and it causes (avoidable) chaos?”
  • Etc. etc.

Or, maybe you worry about the return to the office after your holiday; you can’t relax and unwind because soon enough you have to face your new reality: sun-lounger to your desk, you’re faced with 500 emails and a list of incomplete and overdue tasks that you thought you delegated in your handover. (If this is the case, what is the purpose of going on holiday?)

Without a doubt, some lawyers are better at switching off during holiday periods than others.

Whether they’re rational thoughts or not, most lawyers experience this manner of thinking to some degree – without a doubt, some lawyers are better at switching off during holiday periods than others.

If you’re one of the 23 per cent who can’t help a daily check-in on work emails, or the 15 per cent who continue to do work, do you want to alleviate fearful thoughts and be better at switching off? Even if you’re not guilty of working while away, simply worrying about work may be persistent.

A sure fast way to alleviate absence anxiety is to think bottom line: even if problems arise while you’re away, worrying about it won’t prevent them. However, this bottom line thinking is easier said than done. If you can adopt this outlook your work is done and you probably don’t need to read the rest of this article!

If you’re still reading, it’s time for the nitty-gritty: steps to curb your absence anxiety.

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A thorough handover: preparation and communication

One of the simplest ways to alleviate absence anxiety while you’re on annual leave is in the preparation and communication that takes place beforehand.

There’s comfort in knowing you’ve done a thorough job – everything you possibly can – because that’s all you can do, right? You can’t control other’s actions or inactions but having control over your own, pre-holiday, is the first step to ensure you don’t suffer from any unease.

Delegation - 'letting go'

Grab some time aside to prep colleagues (subordinates, peers or superiors) face-to-face. Run through tasks and follow up with a written summary and instructions. If you’re delegating to someone more junior than you, view the entrustment as a learning and development task, and an opportunity to instil responsibility, accountability and confidence. This will enable you to ‘let go’ of the task, meaning there’s no need to worry about it when you’re away.

Notice and dialogue

When it comes to your superiors, provide plenty of notice when booking holidays and remind them a couple of weeks in advance so they can put their mind to the team and make any necessary allocations of their own. Make sure you inform your superiors where you’ve delegated work to peers or junior team members: copy managers into your handover or your emails that detail tasks and instructions.


Another important factor for stress-free delegation is breaking away from your ego. Accept that others are able to do the job in your temporary absence.

Using foresight to know your limits

In the weeks leading up to your holiday, assess what you’re (realistically) able to complete before you leave. Don’t set unreasonable expectations as this will create unnecessary pressure and stress. Essentially, you’ll set yourself up for failure and begin your holiday with a sense of unfinished business.

Forefront of mind: don’t work for anything

If you’re tempted to work while you’re away – if you’re insistent that this is the only way to relax with no worries – you have to accept that not taking a proper holiday, equates to lesser pay.

Switch off your work device – is this idealistic?

While it makes a lot of sense in theory (and for some people, it’s the only way to switch off), turning off all work devices can cause more harm than good.

If you adopt the above and it doesn’t stop you from worrying, a simple and effective tactic is to make yourself contactable for work emergencies. In doing so, the onus is on your boss, colleagues or juniors to contact you, which can automatically and instantly lessen feelings of unease.

If keeping your device switched on makes you tempted to check your emails, give yourself a set time to do it, and make it short and sweet.

In many ways, checking the odd email while you’re on holiday isn’t necessarily an issue on its own; it’s an issue if it’s an effect of anxiety and an inability to switch off. 

In summary, if your well-deserved break/time away from the office is doomed with worst-case scenario thinking, you won’t recharge. This is vital for optimal performance and success in your job. Don’t let irrational thoughts ruin your holiday and deplete productivity in the long run.

With preparation, communication, foresight and matter-of-fact perspective, you'll have nothing to worry about!

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