“No vacation goes unpunished”*

With President Obama vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard this week, some in the press have had a field day discussing whether or not he should be taking time “off”. I doubt a president is ever truly on vacation, but I can think of some good reasons for wanting him to have some down time.

Cindy Aron, the author of Working at Play: A History of Vacations, has said that “we have a love-hate relationship with our vacations”. America’s history of a Puritan work ethic has meant that we tend to frown on idleness. While the wealthy always traveled, and went to spas for their health, the middle class started vacationing later. Many early vacation choices for them were actually associated with churches. If you went to a Methodist campground, there was less temptation
to indulge in idleness or other vices while on vacation.

Only since the 1950s or 1960s have paid vacations been a common aspect of employment. Most employees currently receive paid time off ranging from five to thirty days per year. Since the financial downturn, however, many people don’t feel comfortable taking all of their vacation time anymore. They are either afraid of losing their jobs, or worried that they will have too much work to return to now that companies have downsized so much.

Even earlier, a 2005 survey by the Families & Work Institute found that one-third of employees said they were overworked, and did not use all their vacation days. Half said they worked often during vacation, and one-third said
they were contacted about work during non-work hours.

Research on the health benefits of vacation, or the detriments of not vacationing, is sparse. A study that is often cited is one conducted in 2000 with the Framingham sample. It found that men who took annual vacations had a 30% lower
risk of dying of heart disease. Factors thought to play a role were reduced stress, more sleep, more socialization and more exercise while on vacation.

In 2005, the Wisconsin Medical Journal published a study of women who did not take an annual break from work, which found that they had more psychological health risks. A 2010 study from the University of the Rockies concluded that sufficient vacation time stabilizes mental health and contributes to “professional well-being”. Those researchers also found that a vacation’s benefits peak at 10 days, making a 10-14 day vacation just about perfect.

Some experts, such as Saki Santorelli of the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, suggest that we try to inject some of the qualities of a vacation into our daily lives at home. Getting more sleep and regular exercise, as well as practicing stress reduction techniques could help balance out the work vs vacation dichotomy.

At least one study backs up Santorelli’s ideas. It examined work engagement and burnout in a group of teachers. The researchers found that positive effects of vacation faded after one month; however, building more relaxation experiences into one’s daily schedule after vacation prolonged the vacation’s effects.

So, in that spirit, here are some tips for making both vacation days and work days better:

  • Consider whether you will benefit most from a very active or more relaxing vacation.
  • Don’t try to cram too much into your vacation. Make sure you actually take time to relax.
  • Set boundaries for work time, work calls and emails. Most of us don’t really need to be available 24/7.
  • Get outside every day, even if it’s just for a walk around the block at lunch time.
  • Take 5-10 minutes every day just to sit quietly and breathe.
  • Laugh. Milton Berle once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation.”

*Karl Hakkarainen

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