How to switch off over the Christmas break

Article3 min16 December 2020By Amy Cooper

The Christmas holiday period is perhaps the best time to switch off completely and refresh for a new year. But switching off doesn’t come easily to everyone. So, if you can master the art of downtime, your mind and body will thank you. 


Holidays are a time to rest up and recuperate, so you’ll eventually return to work at your best.

By switching off in your break, you’ll also be guarding against the growing risk of burnout.

Already a rising worldwide problem and officially identified by the WHO as a work-related condition pre-COVID, burnout has become an even greater menace during the extra stresses of 2020. 

 “Burnout is a huge and growing issue,” says Dawn O’Neil, former chief executive of Beyond Blue and ambassador for Breathing Space, a new program to support executives’ mental health.

“We really have to understand the impact of this extra exposure to stress, to screens, of not being able to get away from the desk.”

If you’re worried that taking downtime signals weakness or lack of commitment, pay heed to Dr Hannah Korrel, a neuropsychologist and neuroscientist who’s committed to helping even the most high-flying execs switch off. 

“There are compelling, legitimate neuroscientific reasons why you’ll perform much better if you engage in anti-burnout behaviour,” 

Dr Hannah Korrel Neuropsychologist and Neuroscientist

 “Burnout impacts your limbic system, affecting your ability to handle stressful events. Your speed of thinking becomes slower, and work takes longer.  

Eventually, she says, you reach a state called ‘vital exhaustion.’

“Your cells stop replicating, your immune system starts failing and you become vulnerable to disease. Even if you have the mental fortitude to keep trucking on, your body will start to fail you.”

Here are 10 great ways to unplug.

1. Boost your brain’s energy bank

“When you're mentally fatigued, you have to rest your mind,” says O’Neil, “and it's a funny thing about our brain that we rest it best by doing something else.”

Dr Korrel recommends that rather than spending all the time on the couch, consider choosing an active form of relaxation that will add to your brain’s wellbeing account. 

“This could be going for a massage or pedicure, taking a walk, reading a book, playing music… whatever feels good for you. But the key is that it’s active, requiring some intellectual resources.”

2. Shrink your inbox

Diminish that email mountain when you return from your break by culling your incoming mail. Where possible, unsubscribe from newsletters during the Christmas break, suggests O’Neil. 

“You can set up rules, so they go into a separate folder rather than filling up your inbox.”

3. Make me time

While Christmas socialising is fun, “it can also be tiring when you’re already fatigued,” says O’Neil. “Don’t feel guilty about scheduling time for yourself, having daytime naps and long sleep-ins.”

She adds: “For many, this year has been very stressful, with much of that stress coming from loss of freedoms, connection, or changes to jobs. Taking time for yourself to acknowledge and process that loss is really important.”

4.  Write it out

To help with that processing, Dr Korrel recommends journaling. 

“It might sound new-agey to some,” she says. “But there’s excellent science behind it.”

Putting emotions into words connects your analytical, verbal left-brain hemisphere with the non-verbal, emotional right side. This helps process and move through those emotions.

5. Mighty meditation

Meditation is a powerful restorative tool, scientifically proven to reduce stress.

“Meditation works because it speaks to your body in the physical language it understands,” says Dr Korrel. “It forces you to sit still, rest your muscles, slow your breathing and heart rate.” 

“After even two minutes of quietening your body down,” says Dr Korrel. “Your cortisone and adrenalin levels fall, and you’re giving your body valuable healing time.”

6. Sleep well, wake well 

The brain depends upon sleep’s restorative, cleansing process to function well, says Dr Korrel. “Without that minimum eight hours sleep, none of your other healthy habits will be effective.”

Use the holidays to practice a new morning routine, she says.

“Instead of leaping out of bed, you can turn off that fight or flight response with breathing exercises,” she says. 

“Close your eyes and breathe in for six counts, then out for six, and repeat for about 10 minutes. This process will tell your body to reduce those cortisone levels for the rest of the day.”

7. Have a relaxation routine

Some people function best with structure, even in their downtime. A rest routine helps, says O’Neil. 

“Schedule exercise, take a walk at 10am after a longer sleep and a cup of tea. Have a list of all the relaxing things you want to do.”

8. Nourish your body

While celebrating with food and drink is part of our culture, O'Neil says over the festive season we also need to let our bodies recover with some alcohol-free days and good nutrition. 

“It's about loving yourself enough to really look after yourself, from top to toe,” She says.

9. Soothe your senses

“Substances in lavender extract interact with a neurotransmitter to quieten the nervous system, which makes the whole body feel more relaxed,” says Dr Korrel.

Combine lavender oil’s soothing effects with classical music, which has been shown to have a relaxing effect, lowering your heart rate.

10. Lead a switch-off culture

Switching off works best when everyone embraces it, says O’Neil. 

“It’s important for anyone in management and leadership roles this Christmas to give your teams one hundred percent permission to turn everything off.”

And you should show your teams how it’s done, adds Dr Korrel. 

“You need to set your own good boundaries around when you send emails, and when you’re contactable. Model that healthy switch-off behaviour.”

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