Work can wind us up. Vacations are supposed to wind us down. But just how much benefit do we get from our vacations? How quickly does any benefit wear off? And how can we get the most out of our time away from work? Important questions: let's dig into some vacation science to find answers.
If we don’t get enough respite from work burdens, the load on our systems may become chronic. People who don’t get enough respite on a day-to-day basis can end up with serious health problems. That’s in part directly due to the effects of being constantly wound up, and in part due to unhealthy habits that can go with it – like sleeping problems and too much alcohol. You can read about theories on Effort-Recovery and wear and tear caused by chronic stress (Allostatic Load) here.
Sluiter and her colleagues have proposed four different types of recovery we need after working:
- microrecovery (the first few minutes after doing something);
- mesorecovery (10 minutes to an hour afterwards);
- metarecovery (which takes from one hour to two days); and
- macrorecovery (more than two days).
Recovery is thought to work in two ways: passively by disengaging us from thinking about work, and actively when we engage ourselves in things we enjoy doing.
So what’s the payoff, then, of macrorecovery (aka vacation)? A systematic review by de Bloom and her colleagues in 2009 found that there were a lot of methodological weaknesses in vacation research. They did find a couple of studies with control groups, and several more that at least had pre-tests and post-tests. This isn’t an area where we have the benefit of randomized trials to help us reach definitive conclusions, though. Attrition was a huge problem in some of the studies – for far too many vacationers, there were no post-vacation results available at all.
So with those caveats in mind, here is what the de Bloom review found. Vacations apparently had a big positive effect on exhaustion and health complaints, although the overall effect of the vacation was rather small. That small effect faded out pretty quickly – little or none was left by the second post-test between about 12 days and a month after the vacation. Exactly when it had vanished isn’t clear, because there weren’t enough measurements. The vacations had been mostly 10 to 14 day summer vacations.
There doesn’t seem to have been another systematic review: the following bits and pieces are picked out of single studies published since then.
Another study – this time of winter sport vacation - by de Bloom and colleagues suggested that being physically away from work appears to be important. That could be why work-related travel might reduce the risk of burnout – and why doing some work when you’re on vacation doesn’t necessarily wipe out the benefits of being on holiday (if it’s voluntary and you don’t overdo it).
Having at least some physical component to the vacation could increase the benefit. And savoring and reliving joyful memories might increase benefit as well. Having a bad time could wipe out the benefits, though – and so could working too hard too quickly as soon as you get back.
A study in teachers from 2011 suggested that another vacation effect could be increased work engagement and reduced burnout. Leisure when you get back might prolong the vacation effect fade-out. Brooding about work problems while on vacation may be one reason why some people don’t get much benefit from vacation in the first place. Another is vacation-related stress - time off isn’t always relaxing or enjoyable.
In 2013, de Bloom and her colleagues published another study - in a journal that rejoices in the title, Journal of Happiness Studies. Summer again, but this time for longer: an average of 23 days. They looked at sleep, too, and found vacation benefits there. In this study they had within-vacation data. It took a week for people to disengage from work. And the longer vacation didn’t seem to result in longer vacation effects.
English academics were the subject of a study on a short Easter break published in 2012. The perfectionist self-critical ones were worse off the week afterwards – they’d also worried and ruminated about work more during their time off. Macrorecovery fail?
These studies don’t address the cumulative lifetime effect of work with or without vacation. Even though people’s ability to benefit from vacations is going to vary – as well as their need for work respite – vacations are also obviously vital to pursue activities we enjoy and time with important people in our lives.
Having time to ourselves during the work day, reasonable work days, weekends off (or shiftworker equivalents), as well as vacations are rights that were hard-won. We owe a lot to the people who struggled and sacrificed to ensure that so many of us have them: many globally still do not. The photo of garment workers picketing during the “Uprising of the 20,000" shirtwaist workers’ strike in New York City is a reminder of what it took: and you can see more photos here.
How much vacation we get still varies a great deal now though - even in the OECD. In the US, Canada and Japan, only rather meager vacation rations are doled out. According to an analysis called “No-Vacation Nation Revisited," US workers get less paid time off than all other OECD countries except Japan: half or less than a half. And yet many in the US don’t take all their vacation days.
So we’ve looked at outcomes like health and wellbeing. What about happiness with life? Data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) put vacations into perspective with other things that make people happy (or unhappy). This survey of around 10,000 people ranked vacation a little more highly as a source of happiness than pets.
However, leisure through the year was a greater source of happiness than a one-off vacation. And that’s an important point. Cherish your hard-won leisure time, even if you enjoy your work immensely: do other things that fill you with joy, too. But not just when you’re on vacation.
~~~~ [Update: Another post from me on this in July 2014 - Vacations: What's the Point?]
Here’s a fact sheet on stress from the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health.
The vacation cartoon is by the author, under a Creative Commons, non-commercial, share-alike license.
The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.