Vacations are generally considered to be a source of happiness and essential for quality of life, and I'm certainly looking forward to my upcoming two-week holiday in France. But what does psychology say about the benefits or otherwise that vacations confer on us?
The research on this topic is reviewed by work and occupational psychologist Jessica de Bloom in The Psychologist (August 2015).
Vacations are costly both financially and in terms of unproductive days off work. According to de Bloom, the average British family spends two months’ salary on annual vacations, and, at the legal minimum of 5.6 weeks vacation per worker, this adds up to 840 million days off work annually. Vacations had better be doing some good, then.
The good news is that two large epidemiological studies indicate that taking regular vacations reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and premature coronary death.
Other studies have shown that people report increased energy, increased feelings of life satisfaction and have fewer general health complaints after taking a vacation.
Unfortunately, these positive effects disappear within a few weeks of resuming work. Interestingly, experiences such as relaxation and having control over one’s daily activities enhance feelings of wellbeing more than the types of activities undertaken on vacation.
De Bloom describes a phenomenon that is new to me: problems that regularly crop up immediately pre-vacation. In the last week before holidays begin, feelings of good health and wellbeing decrease, particularly for women who additionally experience an increased workload at home.
The first few days of vacation are also often accompanied by poor sleep, elevated blood pressure, bad mood, headache and upset stomach. These feelings correlate with a physiological decline in the secretion of stress hormones. To illuminate this pre-holiday phenomenon, de Bloom uses the analogy of a car motoring along in fifth gear and suddenly switching down to first.
Do vacations improve workers’ mental performance on the job? Ominously, studies have shown a slightly elevated mortality rate for patients operated on by a surgeon who had not performed an operation the previous day compared with patients whose surgeon had operated the previous day. This may reflect a small decline in skill levels due to time off work in highly specialised professions.
However, studies of more mainline workers indicate that job performance and levels of mental flexibility are higher after taking a holiday and rates of absenteeism are lower.
A recent important phenomenon affecting vacations is the blurring of boundaries between work hours and out-of-work hours. With the advent of smartphones, laptops and tablets, we are all instantly contactable by email and text throughout our waking hours.
Companies differ in their policies regarding sending out-of-hours emails to employees. Some German corporations shut down their email servers after office hours. On the other hand, there are reports (for example, an article by J Kantor and D Streitfeld in International New York Times, August 15th) of Amazon sending employees emails after midnight, followed shortly by texts asking why the emails have not been answered.
At all costs, you want to avoid spending your vacation in some exotic location obsessively prodding at your smartphone and opening work emails. Leave your work mobile phone at home and set up a message on your work email account before you go on vacation that automatically answers incoming emails – “I am out of the office on vacation, returning on so-and-so date, and I will deal with your email then”.
In summary, there is good evidence that vacations boost health and wellbeing and positively affect work performance. Organise a smooth start to your vacation, concentrate on mental disengagement from everyday worries and enjoy your autonomy and various pleasurable activities during the vacation, and organise a gradual return to work.
And do not worship vacations. It is important to enjoy your entire life: work and leisure.
A permanent vacation would not be a good idea, as George Bernard Shaw reminded us: “A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell.”
- William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC, http://understandingscience.ucc.ie