You jet set off to Hawaii for a week of cocktails on the beach, reading for hours in a hammock, and lazy dinners overlooking the ocean.
When you return with a sun-kissed glow, you’ll be relaxed, reenergized and in a better place mentally and emotionally for at least the month that follows, right?
Studies show that while the initial response to vacationing is strong, the effects on our health are short-lived. A study published in The Journal of Occupational Health revealed that vacation has positive effects on health and well-being, but that they soon fade out after work resumption. A more recent study published in Journal of Happiness Studies set out to determine if vacationing for a longer duration may change this. But they again found that while well-being (measured by health status, fatigue, satisfaction, mood, tension, and energy level) improved during long summer vacations the positive effect quickly waned once work was resumed.
And these vacations were longer than 14 days — they lasted 23 days on average (must be nice, right?). So if the restorative benefits aren’t having a trickle down effect when these people return, what good is our measly six days in Cape Cod doing for us?
The Health Benefits of Vacationing
Just because the immediate benefits may be short lived, doesn’t mean they should be disregarded completely. The reprieve from work does translate to some lasting benefits.
Emotional health: Unsurprisingly, vacationing regularly seems to prove beneficial for our emotional health. A study published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal found that women who vacationed frequently were less likely to become tense, depressed, or tired, and were more satisfied with their marriage than those who vacationed less often than once every two years. Researchers hypothesized that these psychological benefits may also lead to increased quality of life and improved work performance. And a survey conducted by the Mind-Body Center at the University of Pittsburgh found that leisure activities, including taking vacations, contributed to higher positive emotional levels and less depression among the participants.
Heart health: Taking time off may lower the risk for more serious health issues, too. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that men who take frequent annual vacations were 32 percent less likely to die from heart disease than those who forewent vacations.
Productivity: Ernst & Young conducted an internal study of its employees and found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings improved by 8 percent. The Boston Consulting Group also found that high-level professionals who were required to take time off were significantly more productive overall than those who spent more time working.
Why We Can’t Rely On Vacations Alone
That being said, it seems that the tangible boost in health gleaned from our once or twice a year breaks is wearing off way too quickly once we’re back in our desk chair.
Not to mention that many of us aren’t taking the vacation days afforded to us in the first place. Research conducted by Project: Time Off found that vacation usage has been in a steady decline since 2000. A survey conducted by Skiftfound that 41 percent of Americans didn’t take a single vacation day during 2015, and 17 percent said they took fewer than five vacation days. (Fun fact: They found that the 18-35 generation, which includes Gen Z and Millennials, are more overworked than any other age group, as they enter and move up the employment chain.)
And for those of us that do take the time off, another survey conducted by Glassdoor and Harris Interactive showed that 61 percent of people work while on vacation. Probably because we’re feeling guilty for taking the time off: nearly half of all workers surveyed said they felt a sense of shame or guilt at their workplace for taking time off to go on a vacation, according to the 2016 Alamo Family Vacation Survey.
The research conducted by Project: Time Off also found that 37 percent of employees feared they would return to a mountain of work, while 30 percent cited the fact that no one else can do their job as the greatest roadblocks to taking a vacation.
Turning On Vacation Mode
So whether you’re not taking the time off, working through your vacation, or looking to elongate the health benefits of your trip to the tropics, it’s time to consciously activate vacation mode in your everyday — instead of spending your time slaving away while you dream about the trip to Italy that you have scheduled eight months from now.
The survey conducted by the Mind Body Center highlighted vacation as just one of many leisure activities that contributed to more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions and depression. Meaning that utilizing your precious PTO days is far from the only option.
And the researchers behind the recent study claiming that the post-vacation glow wears off quickly did find specific aspects of vacationing that translated to the highest improvement in health and wellness while away: pleasure derived from activities, relaxation, savoring, control and sleep were especially important for the strength and persistence of vacation after-effects (despite how short-lived they may be).
This is great news, since it doesn’t take a cabana in Mexico to experience any of these things.
Summer is the perfect time to experiment with activating vacation mode during your everyday: The weather is generally just as nice as in many vacation destinations (though it may be harder to enjoy it stuffed in a subway car or holed up in your office), schedules tend to be less rigid, bosses are more laid back, and some of us even have the wonderful gift that is the summer Friday to work with.
So turn on vacation mode by applying these four measures of health and well-being to your weekly schedule. You may just be able to manufacture that sense of rest and relaxation (and the health benefits that come with it) without taking any time off or jet setting to an exotic location.
The researchers asked participants to rate activities enjoyed on vacation, which were split into three buckets: physical, social and passive. We look forward to vacations so much because of these activities, since they are areas that are often crowded out of the schedule by work, chores, and errands. But they don’t have to be. Make room in your schedule for vacation-inspired activities: take an outdoor yoga class, plan a dinner with friends, and set aside an hour to nap, read a book or picnic in a local park.
To measure relaxation, psychological detachment and control over leisure time during vacation, the researchers applied scales of the Recovery Experience Questionnaire, used as a measure for assessing recuperation and unwinding from work. An example of a statement they used to assess psychological detachment from work was: “During this vacation, I don’t think about work at all.” Relaxation was assessed with items like: “During this vacation, I use the time to relax”, and an example item for control was: “During this vacation, I determine for myself how I will spend my time”.
More likely than not, you’re always “on” in some capacity — checking emails, thinking about an upcoming meeting, or brainstorming ideas. But it doesn’t require a vacation to pull these recovery experiences out of us; there are ample opportunities for them every day. Set aside time to completely detach: read a (non-work related) book, treat yourself to a massage, zone out in front of the TV or cook a meal with friends.
Examples of statements that participants were asked to assess to measure how much they savored activities included: “I don’t enjoy things as much as I should during this vacation” and “I feel fully able to appreciate good things during this vacation.”
This one’s about being more mindful — something we can, and should, all be striving for in our daily lives. It may be easier when you’re exploring a neighborhood in London or watching a sunset in Greece, but work on being fully present during the enjoyable activities that pop up throughout your average week, too: lunch with a co-worker, dinner with friends, your nightly walk with your dog, your morning lattw…the list goes on.
This one’s a no-brainer, but as important as sleep is to our overall health, it is one of the first things to get placed on the backburner when our schedules fill up. And not only did the researchers measure participants sleep duration (quantity) while on vacation, but sleep quality as well. You may think you’re logging seven hours and that’s good enough—but be aware of factors that are are disrupting your sleep cycles and causing poor-quality rest like alcohol, caffeine, electronics and bedroom conditions (temperature, lighting etc.).