What is holiday burnout, and how can we avoid it?

Why aren't holidays as relaxing as they should be, and how can we address the pressure of the season to ensure we can truly recharge?

Imagine this: three o’clock hits on the last workday of the year. You get into your car, unburdened by any extra marking, head clear of any classroom planning. You’re looking forward to spending time with your friends and whānau. From the moment you leave school, you feel completely relaxed – it’s your time to recharge.  

Wouldn’t that be nice?  

But for many educators, especially now, this isn’t the reality. Holidays don’t seem to be as relaxing as they should be. For one, there’s the mad rush to tie everything up for the end of the year – marking and reports on top of the usual workload – and now the spectre of industrial action and more disruption on the horizon.  

Then there’s the stress of the holidays themselves: presents to buy, cards to write, kids to look after, family to spend time with. And speaking of family, although we love them really, their ubiquitous presence during the holiday season can become a bit… claustrophobic. Long distance phone calls with aunties twice removed and looking after that uncle who always has one too many can get a bit draining. Why do the holidays often feel like more work, after you’ve already finished work? What can we do to ensure holidays are truly restful? 

To tackle the first issue: the anticipation of time off during the holidays can often lead to a pressure to do more work before the break. You might think ‘I can’t afford any time off,’ and push yourself to work that bit harder. Dr Andrew Dhaenens, a lecturer at UNSW Business School’s School of Management and Governance, says this can lead to increased feelings of burnout, defined by the WHO as “a syndrome [sic] resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

“It is characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” 

Although burnout can feel overwhelming and manifest as a disengagement from other areas of your life, it can be managed, and the holidays are a perfect time to do so. One of the most effective ways to manage feelings of burnout is to turn to others for support. Although burnout encourages disengagement from relationships, isolation is likely to make that burnout worse, as it can feel like the world’s responsibilities fall onto you. 

Sometimes, colleagues can be the best source of support: they understand the pressures of a teaching load, and they can commiserate in a way others can’t. Fostering these friendships outside of work can add to a support network that helps combat burnout. Those closest to you, like friends and whānau, can also be an invaluable resource outside of work: sharing loads like household tasks or childcare responsibilities can make the everyday just a little easier.  

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And although there can be overwhelming pressure to get everything “in order” before the holidays, sometimes it pays to reframe things. Will things really collapse if you don’t tick off every task? What can afford to wait? And although it may be tempting to work through the holidays, it’s important to recognise that time taken to recharge can only add to productivity in the future. Things that seem overwhelming now might not be as daunting in the new year.  

So that’s one aspect of holiday burnout, but what about the other facet? What is it about holidays themselves that can seem so overwhelming? Well, part of it can be the expectation of relaxing itself, and the emotional energy that goes into maintaining and refreshing important relationships through social events. That’s why it can be so important to take time for yourself, no matter what that looks like for you. Again, important responsibilities and tasks should be shared and portioned into manageable chunks. During times of high stress and fatigue, it’s important to cut oneself some slack, and foster room to truly rest. That may look like prioritising responsibilities, establishing a routine, sharing tasks, setting boundaries and staying in tune with your own emotions. 

Finally, remember that holidays are a time for relaxing. That time is not only important, it’s beneficial for both professional and personal goals in the long run. Keeping these tips in mind and prioritising mental health can ensure that these holidays are truly happy. 

Naomii Seah

Naomii Seah is a writer and journalist from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She enjoys crochet, painting, and a coffee or two at the beach. Her work can be found at The Spinoff, The Pantograph Punch, Stuff, and of course, School News NZ.
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