Why vacations don’t solve burnout

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In this episode, Lindsay Lyman, a former Amazon employee with nearly 12 years of experience, discusses the misconception that taking big vacations or extended breaks can solve burnout. Lindsay shares insights from her coaching practice, emphasizing that while breaks are important, they don’t address the root causes of stress and burnout. Instead, she highlights the need for daily self-care and incremental changes to build a sustainable and emotionally healthy life.


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Episode Transcript

Hey, I’m Lindsay Lyman. I worked almost 12 years at Amazon and saw so many brilliant and successful overachievers burn themselves out and leave their jobs because they’re so stressed and anxious. But guess what? Having a successful career does not have to be at the expense of your mental sanity and personal time. There’s an easier way, and I can show you how. Let’s do this!


Hey y’all, today I want to talk about what happens when you step away from work. You go on vacation, you take a sabbatical, or you take an extended period of time away from work so that you can come back motivated, focused, and rejuvenated, but it doesn’t work.


Okay, so a lot of us do this with vacations. We want to take a break. We have been working crazy hours, hoping that if we can kind of step away, it will help us take that break and come back ready to dive back in. But I recently was working with a client who had done this. They went on an amazing trip for a few weeks. They were very excited about it and had so much fun. It was a great mix of play, adventure, travel, resting, and taking breaks. They were really looking forward to this because they were a little bit burned out at work and wanted to step away and take a break so they could come back and feel motivated.


As we got on our coaching call the other day, I was talking to them and asking how the vacation went. While they had a great time, they were really struggling because, as they said, “it didn’t work.” They didn’t feel motivated, excited, or refreshed at work when they came back from this vacation, and they were really struggling. In fact, they were kind of struggling a little bit more than when they initially stepped away to take the break because they felt stuck and didn’t know what to do.


So, I do think it’s important to take breaks. We need to pause, step away, and get out of our routine. But here’s the thing: we know logically, but emotionally, we kind of feel stuck. I want to talk to you about what to do. You can go on a vacation, but it’s not like these magic things are going to happen. Your inbox is not going to get cleared out, and people are not going to do work for you while you’re gone. In fact, a lot of times when we leave work, we come back to even more work because now we’re behind. It piles up; it’s not like someone else is doing it while we’re gone. We think, “Okay, if I just take a break and then come back, it’s all going to work out.” But here’s the thing: when you physically take a break, awesome. But if you’re not changing some of the habits, pressures, and things that are causing that overwhelm, stress, and burnout, all the breaks in the world aren’t going to solve it.


I think of taking a break from work very similarly to sleep. Sleep is required; it’s necessary. You need it physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. If you don’t sleep, you can’t actually work and function. But we need to sleep every day. You need breaks every day so that you can come back rejuvenated. The bigger the break doesn’t equal the bigger the rejuvenation, motivation, and sense of direction and focus. Just like with sleep, you can’t bank it up and save it. You can’t sleep all weekend so that during the week you can sleep less. That’s just not how our bodies work. You cannot save up sleep. It’s the same thing with taking a break. You can’t go on these big, huge vacations or extended leaves of absence and save up all of that calm, focus, and peace, and come back and bank on using that. If you’re working crazy hours in between, the big breaks aren’t actually helping. If you’re not sleeping during the week, sleeping all weekend isn’t helping you during the week. You need breaks, but you need them daily.


Here’s another way to think about it: if you cut yourself, like a paper cut, it’s small. Paper cuts kill me though—they’re crazy how they’re little and tiny, but some of them hurt so bad. A paper cut is a small cut that heals pretty quickly. If you have a bigger cut, you might need stitches, and it’s going to take you a little bit longer to heal. It’s the same thing. If you’re burnt out because you’re working like a crazy person, it might take longer for you to heal. It might take longer for you to feel rested, rejuvenated, and motivated. Yes, I believe that. But if you don’t change anything at the root cause and just keep coming back to it, it’s not actually solving the problem.


So, I’m all for taking the vacation. I’m all for the break. Take them, but don’t take them thinking it’s going to solve the root cause of the problem. The root cause is what you’ve gotten yourself into that’s not sustainable. Back to this client who came to me frustrated that the vacation didn’t magically work—they didn’t come back motivated. The way they presented it to me was, “Yeah, it didn’t work.” What I offered to them was, “Actually, I think it worked perfectly. Here’s why.” Here’s kind of the aha moment they had. As we talked through what happened when they came back, how they were feeling, what they were thinking, and what was going on, they realized that their current job, the way it was working, was not the right fit. Ultimately, the work feels very meaningless to them, and the team they’re on is spinning. I’m not just talking about going through a reorg or new leadership with churn and spin. I’m talking about more than a year of working really hard, spinning, and spinning without a goal or thing they’re trying to work towards. That just doesn’t work for this client. It’s so frustrating for them to feel like they’re working really hard, doing great work, but it’s just throwaway work. There’s no direction as to why they’re doing this.


They wanted to come back from that vacation motivated, focused, and ready to work really hard on meaningless work. But when they came back, the reason I say it did work is because they actually knew, “Oh, this isn’t the right thing.” That wasn’t the answer they were looking for. They were hoping to go on vacation so they could come back and be the production monkey in this meaningless work again. But ultimately, what taking the break did was remind them, “No, we don’t like doing meaningless work.” So, it worked perfectly.


Now, here’s kind of the pushback I get from people. They’re like, “Okay, so let’s say a similar thing has happened to you, but you can’t just leave your job.” I get it. You can’t just leave your job. You may need it financially. You might be here on a different visa that you need. Those of you in the tech industry, in particular, are very concerned about losing your job as the job market has shifted out there. I get it. But what you need to do is change things so that you need a break daily to heal from the paper cuts, not that you need extended periods of leave to keep healing from cuts that need stitches.


We want big changes fast. That’s how we are wired as humans and how we are taught to consume and engage with things. I’m like, “Amazon, can you ship it to me the same day? Awesome.” We want instant gratification; we want the big solution. But I like to remind people that how you got to this spot wasn’t a big thing. It slowly happened; it slowly creeped in. I’m guessing—I could be wrong here, you tell me that I’m wrong—but I’m guessing you didn’t accept a job that, right out of the gate, you started working nights and weekends and were on call all the time. I’m guessing you didn’t accept a job with a manager that’s terrible and doesn’t respect you. I’m guessing you didn’t start out saying, “Yes, I want to do that job that has back-to-back meetings four days a week.” No, it slowly creeps in over time. So, the way you got here is the same way we want to unwind it. We want to do it slowly.


If the big things worked, I’d be all for it, but they don’t. Take the big multiple-week vacation. Take the sabbatical, take the leave of absence, but take it because you can, because you’ve earned it, and because it’s fun, not because you need it to fix the day-to-day things. If the big things don’t work, I want to offer you to start focusing on the little things. Here’s ultimately what it comes down to: all the data, all the research out there shows there are five basic elements of having an emotionally healthy life. I’m not talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where you need food and shelter and those sorts of things. All for that. But to have an emotionally healthy life, there are five fundamental basics you need to be optimizing to. Our brain wants the big magic solution, the magic pill. Our brain wants to change jobs, get a different manager, or go on more vacations. Cool. But when those aren’t working, I want to offer you to get back to these five basic things. The five basics are sleep, movement, nutrition, natural light, and connection.


Again, we want to just do this small. We want to slowly creep our way back. Pick just one and make it really easy and start small. Maybe to get more natural light, take a meeting outside, go for a walk during your one-on-one with your manager, or take it on the phone and you go for a walk. This is amazing because now not only are you getting natural light, you’re also just moving your body. Notice one of the basics is movement. It’s not like going to Orange Theory and having a hard workout and doing high fitness and all these crazy things. If that works for you, awesome. But it’s simply just move your body. It doesn’t need to be big, hard, or intense. We’re just trying to slowly walk our way back to where we feel emotionally healthy. Yeah, we’re getting some paper cuts along the way; it’s life. But we don’t need stitches every other week from our intense job or from our terrible leaders.


Okay, here’s another thing you could try. If you want to focus on nutrition, it’s just eating what feels good in your body, eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full. Again, I’m not saying we have to go all crazy and big. We’re not trying to do big things here; we’re just trying to make little tiny shifts. So, I’m not saying go and meal prep and make sure every meal is organic and all these things. Again, if that works for you, awesome. But it might just be something as simple as bringing an apple to work to have as a snack instead of getting something out of the vending machine. Just easy, just grab it and go. Just something simple to think of.


Okay, if I know my body and brain need these five things to be emotionally healthy, what’s something really simple and easy I could do? It’s something as simple as drinking a glass of water. That’s it. Just put something that feels good in your body.


If we think about connection, the pushback I get on this a lot is, “Well, when I’m really frustrated and stressed and overstimulated and overwhelmed, I tend to retreat.” I’m like, yeah, awesome. But connection isn’t just with others. There are kind of three parts: connection with others, connection with yourself, and connection with some sort of higher being, whatever that means to you. So yeah, if you’re overstimulated, frustrated, annoyed, anxious, or burned out, and you’re retreating, connection with people may not be the area you need to work on. Go connect with you. What do you need? Do you need a hug? Do you need a glass of water? Do you need a nap? Do you need to listen to some music? Do you need to go for a walk? Do you want to go play? Do you need some focus time? What do you need? Go and connect with yourself.


Or, we think about sleep as another foundational one. I love this one, and I struggle with this one. If I’m being honest, my last gig at Amazon, I was on call 365 days a year. My team had rotations of when they would be on call, but I was always on call. So when we would get paged, I was always the one to get paged, along with potentially someone else within my team. And I would get paged in the middle of the night a lot. It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep when you’re paged in the middle of the night. I also have little kids, and so I was working and taking care of my little kids. And when it was time for me to go to bed, that was my only me time. I would stay up late scrolling or doing dumb things and then have to drag myself out of bed the next morning.


So, as I was focusing on this as a fundamental thing I needed to be emotionally healthy, they always say, “Don’t sleep with your phone in your room.” I’m like, that wasn’t an option. I needed my phone because if I got paged, I needed to respond to it. So, I just started by giving myself a realistic bedtime. On average, most nights, I was going to bed around 11:30. My goal was to get to a place where if I went to bed by 10:00 and got up at 6:00, that would be a good, decent amount of sleep.


Okay, so that was kind of my goal, but I didn’t go from, “Okay, I’m going to bed at 10:00 today.” No way. That wouldn’t happen. I started by just telling myself for a couple of weeks, “We’re going to go to bed at 11:15.” That’s it, just 15 minutes. We just want to make it small. We just want to slowly roll it back. And then, when it was easy for me to go to bed at 11:15, I rolled it back to 11:00. I just kind of followed that process until I got to 10:00.


I also would get paged a lot, like many of you do, so I started to say, “Okay, if I get paged, I’m going to take a 30-minute nap.” I would nap in my car all the time at work. I have no shame. So, if I got paged, now granted, most of the time I didn’t have 30 minutes in my schedule to go take a nap. I was one of those people that was back-to-back, but I just decided, no, I’m rolling things back to make sure I’m optimizing these five fundamental things. So, if I got paged, I promise you there’s one 30-minute meeting on there that’s not the end of the world if you don’t go. I would skip that and just say, “Oh, sorry, I was paged last night. My schedule shifted. I’m not able to make it.” And I would go take a nap.


Right, so we want to focus on these five things. Take the vacations, take the sabbatical, take the big time away. But if you’re not coming back fully energized and focused and ready, and you’re exhausting yourself and just dragging yourself to these breaks, let’s go back to the basics. Let’s go back to focusing on sleep, movement, nutrition, natural light, and connection. When you start figuring out how to work in your job that you may feel stuck in from a strong foundation, it makes it so much easier to find a solution to make it what you ultimately want.


Alright, y’all, you’re amazing. You got this. We’ll talk soon.


If what you’re learning from this podcast is helping, this is just the beginning. Each week, I offer a limited number of coffee chats so that you and I can connect one-on-one and talk specifically about what’s going on for you. You’ll leave this call feeling more hopeful and motivated. But I’m also going to teach you a few things to try right away to get unstuck. Space is very limited, and these are free, so grab your spot before they’re gone. Click the link in the show notes or go to lindsaylymancoaching.com/chat and sign up today. You got this.

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Hey, I’m Lindsay Lyman

I spent the last ~12 years growing my career at Amazon. I’ve built teams, launched new products, and created my own jobs. As a certified coach, I teach people how to manage the noise in their head to feel motivated and valued at work again.

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