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Here's a thought to propel you out of your gently swaying hammock: Who is sitting in my office chair?

Vacations are supposed to be a time for the careers version of the three Rs: rest, relaxation and recovery. But all too often, that break from work can turn into just one more source of stress.

There is the worry about the overhang of work waiting for the return to the office. The worry about how much to untether from the electronic leashes tying you to the workplace.

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And then there is the biggest worry of all: Is your vacation sending the message that you prefer a slow lap around the lake to the fast track?

Career paranoia, panic and perceptions of indispensability mean that Canadians leave millions of vacation days on the table every year, according to the inevitably gloomy surveys that emerge each fall. In essence, employees are returning part of their paycheques to the boss.

But vacations, properly enjoyed, should be used as a springboard to greater productivity – and joy – in the workplace. If that seems out of reach, you may be in need of a vacation strategy. (Yes, the phrase does seems fun-obliterating, but bear with me.)

Julie McCarthy, a professor at the department of management of the University of Toronto, Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, has coached executives on the merits of a vacation strategy – making the most out of the limited number of days off, while ensuring maximum uptick from the downtime.

Without such a plan, vacations can be self-defeating, says Prof. McCarthy. "I've actually had executives say, 'It's more stressful for me to take a vacation.'"

The first step in any vacation strategy is determining the length of the break. More is not necessarily better, in this case. Employees get two kinds of stress relief from vacations: the rest from the actual time off, and less obviously, the anticipatory tingle in the days leading up to the trip to the cottage, beach or that 50-kilometre hike. Another variable to add into the vacation calculus: the positive aftereffects of time off fade after a few weeks.

Add it all up, says Prof. McCarthy, and the optimal length of a vacation is: one week. That might seem like a too-brief window for fun. But a series of one-week breaks will deliver several cycles of anticipation, fun and relaxed aftermath.

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By contrast, a two- or three-week vacation might seem to give greater scope for relaxation, but that choice is likely to backfire when it comes to being able to fully detach from work. It's reasonable, in many instances, to delay decisions and meetings for a week – "I'll get back to you next Monday" sounds just fine. "See you in September" does not.

Deciding on how to engage with the workplace is another key component of a vacation strategy. Prof. McCarthy says data suggests that many would-be vacationers log in between one to four hours of work a day. For some, the high end of that range may be unavoidable, she says. But for the most part, working a half-day while nominally on vacation indicates a failure to consciously decouple from the workplace.

During a recent vacation to Europe, Prof. McCarthy set aside one hour early each morning to deal with e-mail. After that, she was in full vacation mode. That allowed her to stay in touch with work matters just enough to avoid undue stress upon her return.

Next, a proper vacation strategy will map out your "recovery experiences," otherwise known as the fun you'll be up to. Academics Charlotte Fritz and Allison M. Ellis lay out a framework in A Marathon, Not a Sprint: The Benefits of Taking Time to Recover from Work Demands. In that research paper, they describe three types of recovery experiences: psychological detachment (simply not thinking about work-related matters); relaxation (low-effort activities such as browsing a favourite magazine) and mastery (such as finally learning to make a perfect soufflé or learning to light a fire in a downpour).

The final part of a properly structured vacation strategy? Don't focus just on formal vacation time, advises Prof. McCarthy. Take the same thoughtful approach to evenings and weekends to decompress from work throughout the year. That way, when summer vacation time comes around, there will be less pressure to find the perfect way to relax.

Follow me on Twitter: @PatrickBrethour

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