Time off helps us recover. When we’re not working, we’re able to rebuild internal resources that we depleted while dealing with the stress of work. But not all time off recharges us equally.
What is it about some vacations that make them great so that we return to work feeling fully restored and ready to be our most productive selves again?
I separately asked three experts on work recovery what the properties are of a really good vacation, in terms of returning to the office rejuvenated, and they all jumped on the same word first: detachment.
“The most important thing is detachment,” says Mina Westman, a professor of organizational behavior at Coller School of Management, Tel Aviv University. Detachment means letting go of work psychologically and not thinking about it, or at least not thinking about it negatively.
Detachment seems to work across the board. In studies, detachment was positively associated with employee well-being in both white- and blue-collar jobs and in many countries around the world, according to Charlotte Fritz, associate professor in industrial and organizational psychology at Portland State University.
But for many knowledge workers, detachment is easier said than done. In an era when staying in touch with work colleagues is easier than ever via apps like Slack and HipChat, some employees end up keeping in touch with the office even while on vacation. Checking in throughout a vacation lets employees manage unexpected problems and not get slammed with work upon return, which they may believe will make their return less stressful.
Sabine Sonnentag, professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of Mannheim, Germany, says that “mentally detaching from work is crucial,” but added, “detachment is a means to recover and to restore.” She understands why people feel the need not to detach. “It might be better to check email once a day than constantly ruminate and worry about the emails that might have come in,” she explains.
Nevertheless, she still recommends limiting the amount of time during a vacation that one spends working or even thinking about work. “Feeling guilty because one is not working at the moment is detrimental, maybe more detrimental than working itself,” she said.
Relaxation, However You Interpret It
Another attribute of time off that leaves workers feeling more fully recovered is relaxation. It may sound like common sense, but in the moment of planning a vacation, people don’t always prioritize relaxation. Family obligations, like visiting relatives, or designing a vacation that’ll be fun for the whole family, could leave you without any time to unwind. Don’t sacrifice everything you find relaxing about a vacation to please others.
Relaxation is a pretty subjective word, and Sonnentag said we need not interpret it as passive activity. “Physical exercise can be highly beneficial for recovery,” she said. Sonnentag also pointed out that because vacations are longer than other kinds of time off, such as weekends and evenings, they afford people the opportunity to do “more extensive outdoor activities.”
Westman gave a nod to physical activity being beneficial for recovery, too. If you find it relaxing to go on a six-mile run while on vacation, don’t let anyone else talk you out of it.
Mastering A Hobby
An unusual way you can increase your chances of having a rejuvenating vacation is to work on a hobby or activity that you’ve been trying to master. Mastery, which Fritz described in a paper she published with coauthors as “engaging in experiences that involved learning or broadening one’s horizons,” can be anything from painting to practicing jiu-jitsu.
Mastery has to do with building skills that are unrelated to our primary jobs, and while they’re sometimes assumed to be creative, they don’t have to be. Playing a musical instrument is just as valid as taking a language-learning class. Time off spent on a hobby or personal activity that improves with long-term and sustained practice helps us recover from work and may increase our ability to think outside the box and creatively solve problems at work, according to one study. So spending your vacation on a yoga retreat or going to adult archery camp could have more benefits than you expected.
What Not To Do On Vacation
In addition to not working, Fritz has discovered that “thinking about the negative aspects of your job during vacation has been associated with greater burnout, more health complaints, and lower job performance after vacation.”
Likewise dealing with “non-work hassles,” like getting a flat tire or arguing with family, has been shown to impede recovery during time off. While some non-work hassles are unavoidable, try to steer clear of locations and situations that you know might result in frustration, anger, or annoyance. If driving is a typical source of stress, for example, it might be better to plan your vacation around taxis, car services, and other forms of transportation.
The Ideal Vacation?
While exactly what makes a vacation restorative varies from person to person, many experts do recommend taking more than one vacation a year. The reason has to do with a problem called vacation effect fade out. When we go on vacation, we rejuvenate, but the effects only last so long. Within three weeks of returning to work, employees are likely to be back to their normal levels of stress and burnout, according to a paper by Westman and a coauthor. The more vacations we take, the more total days of recovery effects we’ll feel, right?