‘Six months of working followed by two weeks’ holidays! That’s ridiculous.’

Post-holiday blues: why do we get them?

Whether you’re back to ironing work shirts or finding the perfect winter dress, your summer holiday probably seems like little more than a dream and, with it, the promise of escape and freedom. It’s back on the treadmill of work, play and sleep. These days, even rest is programmed, timed and rationalised. It’s the same story every year, however. As you walk through the office door, you suddenly feel the need for another holiday. Is a two-week break no longer enough to recharge your batteries? What if alternating periods of intense activity with long holidays is actually a bad idea? Dr Albert Moukheiber is a neuroscientist, clinical psychologist and Welcome to the Jungle Lab expert. Here he explains why the post-holiday blues are what happens when our social clocks are totally out of sync with nature.

Employees report feeling very depressed when they return from their summer holidays. Is this cause for concern? Or just part of life?

Albert Moukheiber: It hasn’t been measured perhaps, but everybody complains about coming back to the office after the summer holidays. As a clinical psychologist, I’ve never observed an increase in depression, burnout or anxiety disorders at this specific time of year. But even though it doesn’t cause depression, it’s a season when people complain more. Is it normal? That would mean having to define normality. Since it’s pretty common, then yes, in this case, the autumn blues are perfectly normal.

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Do people complain more because they’re worried about getting sucked back into the daily grind? Or are humans just not designed to shift from a long break to a period of intense activity?

It’s a bit more complicated than that. First of all, it would be unrealistic to see this transition as one of extreme inactivity to extreme activity. Most people aren’t inactive when on holiday – quite the opposite, in fact! When you look forward to your holidays for months, the pressure really builds. You think, “I have to make good use of my time off. I have to enjoy every minute of this break.” You rarely hear people say, “I’m going to spend my holidays just wandering around at home with no plans whatsoever.” Summer holidays, unfortunately, aren’t often associated with doing nothing at all! While the pressures of life may differ from other times of the year, the whole notion of performance never changes. Want to recharge your batteries? That’s a goal, an objective to be met, in contrast to this idea of doing nothing. In such circumstances, it’s no wonder people feel tired when they get back to the office.

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So, if I understand you correctly, the problem lies with how holidays are organised?

Actually, I think it’s a very bad idea to think that you have to work like crazy for six or nine months straight, and then you go to Cambodia for a fortnight to recharge your batteries, only to burn out again at work. It’s a bit like saying, “I’m going to stop eating for a month and then eat 10 kilos of food in one meal,” or “I’m not going to sleep for three weeks and then spend a week in bed.” It’s totally ridiculous and yet that’s what everyone does! Whether it’s about being productive at work all year round or getting away from it all to rest during the holidays, people forget to give themselves periods of time with no goals, which are essential for staying balanced.

Holidays that you get to plan, that you have fun organising, are a reward to help you cope when you get overwhelmed or stop enjoying your work.

People have been inventing new social patterns alternating between holidays and work since the industrial revolution. But things weren’t always like this. For example, farmers living in the 19th century had to tend their crops according to the rhythm of the sun and seasons. They weren’t ploughing the fields Monday to Friday from nine to five. There was usually less to be done in winter. Today, people have to wake up, get dressed and head to the office to do the same work every day for more than 40 years. Yet, we’re not robots. We need unoccupied time, apart from sacred moments such as holidays and weekends.

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Isn’t repetition good for staying balanced and keeping your brain sharp?

The human brain is capable of adapting to almost any situation. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Take toxic relationships or dictatorships, for example. Humans can live with either, but at what cost? On the other hand, it’s clear that the improvement in living standards over the past 200 years hasn’t led to increased life satisfaction. Someone who earns more than three times the minimum wage, has access to running water and electricity, can afford to eat whatever they like and wear the latest fashions, but they aren’t automatically more satisfied than someone who lives without all these comforts. This observation raises a fundamental question: why do people put so much effort into something that doesn’t make them happier?

So, what’s the best remedy? Should people work less, stagger their holidays or have more free time?

Take, for instance, the idea of the four-day work week. If I’m the only one working four days a week, while the rest of society works five, then I’ll surely feel less pressure to fill every hour of those three days off. There’s no point in feeling guilty about doing nothing on day three as everyone will be busy. So, that could be a good idea. You need to aim for a rhythm that removes the pressure to perform at work or in your everyday life, pressure that requires constantly filling up an already overloaded schedule. Beyond that, there’s no magic formula to this problem. You have to find an approach that works for you. For example, maybe you’re interested in yoga or meditation. If it’s to refocus your energies, let your mind wander or unwind, great. But if you end up setting your alarm to do sun salutations at the crack of dawn every day, then you’ve fallen into the same trap. It’s the same with reading. Some people will take their time with a good book, while others feel they must finish the chapter before they can go to sleep.

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In practical terms, what’s the best way to ensure you get a little unoccupied time every day?

I never said it was simple! (Laughs) For example, there was a time when I’d go home, settle down on the sofa and do nothing. At first, I thought it was completely ridiculous. I was watching the clouds. Now, it’s something that comes naturally – I know I need to take a break from myself on a regular basis. If lying around doing nothing scares you, consider wandering or walking around without an end destination in mind. As I said, the risk is thinking you have something to gain. It’s like the snake eating its own tail – and it doesn’t work. Because while it has been scientifically proven that intentional disengagement is good for you, it still doesn’t solve the problem of how to do it. It’s distinctly paradoxical.

Aren’t human lives regulated in such a way as to make them more productive?

That’s true. But it hasn’t always been – and I believe it’s always possible to do things differently. I think we must start from the very beginning by telling our children they don’t have to be the best all the time. Today, everyone wants to be number one. But do I really need to come in first all the time and in everything I do? I can play the guitar just to unwind. I don’t have to be the next Jimi Hendrix. This way of looking at things can seem absurd, though – we’ve been conditioned to believe that being average is not enough.

Translated by: Andrea Schwam

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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