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Vacation Time

CNBC reported at the end of last year that 92% of Americans cancelled or postponed their vacations. While that’s somewhat understandable in light of travel restrictions at the time, 64% of workers aren’t allowed to roll that time over due to their companies’ vacation policies, which did not change due to the unusual circumstances, meaning they permanently lost that paid benefit.

I guess that may not matter much, since if we go back to what used to be “normal times,” 55% of us didn’t take all of our vacation days anyway. Work pressures, concerns about competition, worries about not being seen as dedicated to the job, unrealistic expectations by corporations plus a number of other reasons are reported as the cause of this annually growing trend, but we could say it’s simply the American norm. Working on holidays, weekends and skipping vacations is considered acceptable in this country. And that’s not a positive for our health and well-being.

While the U.S. is not the only country to follow this unhealthy practice, we’re not the norm globally. Japan and Thailand join us at the top of the list for least amount of time taken off, but on the flip side, every country in the European Union and Africa has mandated time off for their workers, ranging from 20 to 30 days per year. Required time off with pay. Meanwhile, the Center for Economic and Policy Research calls the U.S. the “No Vacation Nation.”

Here in the U.S., it’s practically a badge of honor to skip time off to contribute to what is incorrectly seen as a way to be more productive. The U.S. is not #1 in GDP in the world, but 6th, even as we work more hours per week than many of our European counterparts and take much less time off per year. As we become tired and burned out, our productivity drops. And since stress accounts for over 80% of all illnesses and diseases in a country where health care costs are continuously skyrocketing, it could be seen as one of those “cut off your nose to spite your face” situations.

Stress raises levels of certain hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. While in the short term, this can be helpful, triggering the “fight or flight” response that helps us deal with immediate threats, over time, chronic stress can increase our risk for health issues, including heart disease. A study released by the American Psychological Association concluded that time off helps to reduce stress by removing people from the activities and environments that they associate with anxiety. And work tends to be a consistent trigger for anxiety.

There’s another long-term consideration from our bad habits. Skipping vacations and spending weekends or holidays working undermines one of the most important factors that determines whether we persist in our work, intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is what gives our work meaning. People feel intrinsically motivated when they engage in activities that they find interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful. Data shows that working during leisure time creates internal conflict between pursuing personal and professional goals, leading people to enjoy their work less.

The number one complaint we hear in our workshops and in coaching sessions is that people feel that they have no work/life balance. The pandemic certainly intensified that condition, but we were suffering from this state long before our world was upended in 2020. Perhaps now is a good time to consider our quality of life and the importance of factors beyond our work.

The definition of a vacation is an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling. You know, vacate your regular life, especially work. All work and no play, as they say, doesn’t lead to a happy camper. Some of the benefits of taking a break from work include improved physical health, improved mental health, increased mental motivation, decreased burnout, improved family relationships and a greater overall sense of well-being. Taking vacations also increases mindfulness.

Going on holiday makes us feel more present and stimulated. According to Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, “when we travel we are usually breaking our normal routine,” and that means we can’t operate on autopilot. Davidson says, “That decreased familiarity is an opportunity for most people to be more fully present, to really wake up.” According to another research study in The Journal of Positive Psychology, meditation and vacations appear to have overlapping effects. The report found that both meditation exercises and vacationing were associated with higher levels of well-being and increased mindfulness.

Taking time off also improves our capacity to learn. When our brains are completely relaxed, they consolidate knowledge and brainpower. “Neuroscience is so clear, through PET scans and MRIs, that the ‘aha’ moment comes when you’re in a relaxed state of mind,” says Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. That's why we get our best ideas on a walk, in the shower or on vacation. Adam Galinsky, professor and chair of the management division at Columbia Business School, has conducted numerous studies drawing a link between travel and creativity.

“Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,” Galinsky stated.

Lack of sleep is another common complaint, often stemming from the fact that we have too much on our minds. Researchers say that time off from work can help interrupt the habits that disrupt sleep, like working late into the night or checking the cell phone before bed. One reason sleep improves while on holiday and extends afterwards is that a new bed helps us dissociate from our negative sleep patterns back home. Researchers found that after two to three days of vacation, participants averaged an hour more of good quality sleep and experienced an 80% improvement in their reaction times. When they returned home, they were still sleeping close to an hour more, and their reaction time was 30% to 40% higher than before the trip

Of course, not everyone can afford to take an extended trip or even a staycation for financial reasons. There are still steps you can take to get a true break from work. A recent scientific report highlighted that spending at least 2 hours a week in a natural environment, like a park, a beach, a forest or even a garden is associated with good health and well-being. Perhaps a 3-day camping trip could soothe the work beast roaring inside.

Another way to address work overload without a vacation is to disconnect when you’re off for the weekend or on a paid holiday. Really take that time off from work. For most of us, the only way to do that is to turn off the devices. Unplug for a day or two. If you need support, try joining the National Day of Unplugging, which has over 1,000 events per year. Disconnecting or unplugging from all the digital static offers us an opportunity to reset. It also allows us to make more human connections with the people around us. Digital connections lack the tactile essence of the real world such as sounds, smells, and touch. And of course, those very tactile essences make us more mindful. Studies also indicate that unplugging frequently results in improved sleep, so there’s an additional bonus to just stepping away from the phone or tablet for a day or two.

We can all be more mindful of what our minds and bodies need. We can also be more aware of the importance of taking some much needed time off from work and of establishing boundaries between our personal and professional lives. And frankly, we can all benefit from a little more fun in life. So whether it’s a weekend, a national holiday, or a full-blown vacation trip, it’s time to add a little balance back into our lives to reconnect with ourselves, our loved ones and the beautiful inspiration from nature all around us. We’ll return to work more motivated, more productive and in better health. Doesn’t that sound like a good idea?

Until next time. We can live better lives and create a better world. All it takes to get started is a mindful moment.

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