Making Your Vacation Last

Time off is important — but how can you stay relaxed and productive once you get back to the office?

By now, you may have heard the good news about taking time off. The research that shows that employees who take vacations are more productive and creative is so compelling that some companies pay bonuses to those who take time out of the office. 

Even so, in the U.S., workers only take about half of their earned vacation time. And meeting professionals may take even less: Of those who responded to Convene’s Salary Survey this year, fully 80 percent said they didn’t take all of the time off that they had earned.

Pool outdoorsBut even if you are among those who do use all of your vacation, there is a good chance it isn’t enough to help you reap the full benefits of down time, according to research published the September/October issue of Scientific American Mind.

Two experiments that looked at people who had taken breaks that varied between four to five or seven to nine days in length showed that the sense of renewal that a vacation brings wears off pretty quickly — in both cases in about a week.

Which is not to say that the physical and psychological boosts that a vacation brings aren’t real, article author Ferris Jabr noted. It’s just that the two weeks of annual vacation — standard in the U.S. — is nowhere near enough to sustain its benefits.

So what to do? Two things will help: 

Take all your vacation time, but not necessarily all at once. Regularity is more important than length when it comes to taking breaks.

Take frequent breaks — including nights and weekends — where you disconnect completely from your job. Workplace psychologist Larissa Barber found that employees who reported greater pressure to stay connected 24/7 by email and phone missed more days of work, exhibited more physical and mental burnout, and didn’t sleep as well as their colleagues.

“Baby steps,” Jabr writes, “involve curtailing job-related communication in the evenings and on weekends.” More and more companies are creating policies, like limiting after-hours email, that ease what Barber calls “telepressure” — the feeling that once must be online and available at all times.

Widespread burnout and the benefits of vacations are topics we covered earlier this year, when Convene Podcast host Ashley Milne-Tyte talked with Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

It matters whether or not there is cultural and organizational support for down time, Schulte noted. In Sweden, where almost everyone in the country takes the entire month of July off, prescriptions for anti-depressant prescription levels plummeted during that period, she said. “There were these greater feelings of wellbeing. They called it collective restoration — not only did you individually refresh and recharge but entire families did, communities did, entire companies and cities did.”

“What research on overwork and burnout is showing,” Schulte added, “is that you are much less effective if you keep pushing and pushing and pushing, which has become the culture in America right now.”

Find the the podcast here.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.