We all know that taking vacation is good for you, but it’s less clear that both employers and employees understand exactly just how good it is for you, given that every year more than half of Americans give up paid time off. According to the U.S. Travel Association, in 2018, this amounted to 768 million days of unused vacation time, with more than 30% of it forfeited completely. Add to this, the fact that over 50% of managers feel burned out, taking vacation (and actually unplugging) has never been more important.
Perhaps you’ve experienced first-hand feeling recharged and refreshed from a vacation in the not-too-distant past. Or maybe you and your team have been hesitant to take a vacation because you’re too busy at work.
To create more sustainability for employees (and yourself), it’s important to not only regularly take available vacation time, but also to fully understand its benefits and encourage your team members to plan time off. Whether they spend their breaks lounging by a pool sipping piña coladas, doing something more active or adventurous, or even doing a staycation, going on vacation benefits their mind, body, and soul.
The cognitive impact when you’re overwhelmed with work can include cognitive fatigue, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, and impaired problem-solving ability, among several other effects. Taking a vacation provides greater opportunity for rest and better sleep (both quantity and quality), which can help unclutter your mind to create more mental space.
Uncluttering your mind allows you to think more clearly and boosts creativity. This can happen in both small and big ways while on vacation. Research shows that merely taking a walk (even if it’s inside on a treadmill) significantly increases creativity. On a grander scale, taking time off provides an opportunity for big or innovative ideas to emerge. Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived of Hamilton while on vacation. “It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life — perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life — came to me on vacation,” he shared. “The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, Hamilton walked into it.”
Taking vacation — and even just planning for it — can also improve your mood. In particular, many people carry a significant “sleep debt” that often comes with work-related stress and anxiety. Research shows that this lack of sleep can result in negative moods such as sadness, anger, frustration, and irritability, which can, in turn, result in more difficulty sleeping. Longer term, lack of sleep can also increase risk of dementia. Vacation provides the opportunity to reduce or eliminate this sleep deficit. According to the American Psychological Association, getting even 60 to 90 minutes more of sleep a night can improve both memory and concentration. Vacation also allows you to reset sleep patterns that can improve your mood and cognition beyond vacation. The University of Pittsburgh’s Mind-Body Center found that taking vacation increases positive emotions and reduces depression. And spending time in nature has been shown to reduce negative rumination and improves overall psychological wellbeing.
Improved rest and sleep during vacation also helps you return to work able to think more clearly as well as be more focused and productive, which has shown benefits to both the individual and the employer. An Ernst & Young study showed that for every additional 10 hours of vacation time that employees took, their year-end performance improved 8%, and another study showed that using all of your vacation time increases your chances of getting a promotion or a raise. Further, according to the EY study, those who took vacations more frequently were less likely to leave the firm. Similarly, in another company’s experiment with taking mandatory vacation time, there were clear increases in creativity, happiness (mood), and productivity. They were also able to culturally counter any warrior or martyr mentality, where employees might otherwise be tempted to show off how hard they were working by not vacation time, since everyone was required to take vacation at specified intervals.
Everyday work pressures can result in elevated levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine, similar to if you felt you were in physical danger. An increase in stress hormones has the effect of suppressing your immune system so your body can channel its energy to flee from (or fight) a non-existent saber-toothed tiger. Relaxing on vacation can reduce the levels of these stress hormones and allow your immune system to recover, making you less prone to get sick. Conversely, if stress hormones stay chronically elevated due to lack of rest and recovery time that comes as a result of putting off or forgoing vacation, you will be more susceptible to not only colds or the flu, but also vulnerable longer term to more serious illnesses like heart disease or cancer.
In a study of 749 women, researchers found that those who took vacation less than once every six years were eight times more likely to develop heart problems compared to those who went on vacation twice a year. Going on vacation can also lower your chances of dying from coronary heart disease, including lower blood sugar levels and improved HDL or “good” cholesterol levels.
And depending on how you spend your time while on vacation, there are additional potential physical benefits. Being in nature has the effect of reducing your heart rate and blood pressure. Engaging in physical activities like hiking, biking, swimming, or other water-based exercise can improve heart and respiratory health, while building stronger bones and muscles and improving balance, which is more important as you age. Getting a massage is not only a great way to relax while on vacation, but has physical benefits such as improving circulation, flexibility, immune response, and decreasing muscle stiffness and joint inflammation.
While the mental and physical benefits of vacation have been frequently touted, what is less commonly discussed is how vacation can impact us more profoundly on a deeper, more spiritual level. Our soul is our spiritual essence — it’s who we really are at our core — before our families, friends, jobs, and society inundated us with messages about who we should be.
When you take time away from work to go on vacation, assuming you can mostly unplug, this break can allow you to tune out much of this external noise and tune back into your true self. You can start to separate the striver part of you, let go of your ego, and reacquaint yourself with the essence of who you really are. When people talk about their “happy place,” it’s usually a place that allows them to let go of daily pressures, reconnect with themselves at a soul level, and feel a sense of peace. It’s here that you are able to express your values unencumbered — whether it’s adventure, learning, or beauty — and do things that bring you joy.
While it sounds hokey, answers to life’s big questions — like “What do I really want?” or “What’s most important to me?” — are more likely to come to us when there is some space and stillness. We get better at listening to our inner voice and can hone our intuition. Note that this quiet space can feel extremely uncomfortable for anxious over-achievers, who typically have a hard time being still and not “doing.” Yet, it’s precisely this space we have while on vacation that offers an opportunity to tap into your authentic self. This doesn’t mean you need to spend your next vacation on a silent retreat at a monastery. For me personally, my happy place is Paris. Speaking a beautiful language, surrounding myself with art, and sitting at a café makes me feel at peace and brings me back in touch with what feels like the real me. For others, it might be sitting on a beach watching the sun set or camping in the wilderness.
When we bring our authentic selves back to work, we are more likely to shed our protective veneers, which includes not wasting energy or resources on hiding our inadequacies, so we can redirect them to the work at hand. We are also more likely to focus more on the work that has the most meaning to us, which can lead to further career development opportunities. For some employees, this may mean leaving their current job if they realize there’s a disconnect in values at their company or between who they are and what they do. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for an employer. A disengaged employee may be more expensive than one that actually quits.
The bottom line is that employees will benefit mentally, physically, and spiritually from vacation. Employers will benefit as well. And making sure your people regularly take time off is key to creating a more sustainable workplace with healthier, happier employees.