This summer my husband and I took a long vacation – three weeks. And two days, my husband would add, which perhaps conveys his thoughts on all this family togetherness (the whole family came) and being away from his business for such a length of time. And he’s not alone.
In his chapter on recovery, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest, shares that “For many people, the idea of leaving the office for two or three weeks feels impossible, and the thought of facing a mountain of work and an overflowing inbox on their return is more stressful than never leaving. “
But not taking a vacation has high costs too – to the individual and to the company as there is a higher risk of heart attack, burnout and lost productivity. All of which leads you to ask what length and type of break have the best return for employee and employer. For the last twenty years, German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag has been exploring that question.
Her findings are fascinating. In her research, she found that there are four major factors that can impact performance and health – relaxation, control, mastery experiences and mental detachment from work – and a combination of all four produces the best results.
For relaxation, it’s an activity that’s pleasant and while not totally passive, not connected to work. For some, this could be playing golf or sailing, where you still have to concentrate, or gardening where you can get absorbed in what you are doing – anything that takes your mind off work.
Or it could be volunteering. I spent several weeks sorting clothes for the refugee families coming to Guelph. It was such a pleasant break. I didn’t have to think too hard and it gave me a warm feeling to know I was making a small difference.
The impact of control on your recovery can be measured by the amount of control you have in your daily living. If you have the freedom to decide how to spend your time, energy and attention, then it is a quicker fix. If however, you have family commitments, work shifts and generally less control over your life, then it will take longer to recharge.
Mastery experiences could be a hobby or interest where you have developed some skill and talent, and which uses your creativity in a different way. My daughter, for example, is a prolific knitter and quilter, both activities help her to relax and switch off from the demands of work, and at the same time, she has something positive and tangible to show for her efforts.
During World War 11, the people working on the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park would play chess. The game still required their mental skills, but had rules and was concrete, unlike the work they were doing trying to crack the code.
Another example was a group of physicists who played in a rock band as a way to totally remove themselves from the mental demands placed on them every day.
One of the challenges to becoming detached from work is with our Smart Phones, and the Internet, it is much harder to switch off 24/7. Yet if you wish to avoid burnout, leaving your phone behind on weekends maybe the answer.
Going back to World War 11, apparently, when Eisenhower arrived in the UK, he was first based in a hotel in London, a hotel that was brimming with military personnel and where everyone was on call and on edge.
He chose early on to move out of the city and found a hideaway, Telegraph Cottage, where he would relax, get in tune with nature and not talk nor think about the war at all. Yet when he went back into London, he was alert, astute and in control.
Many of us in Canada may already have our hideaway - our cottage - where we can escape from the pulls and demands of work.
As Jessica de Bloom, a psychologist and vacation researcher advises “vacations are like sleep, you need to take them regularly to benefit.”
So what’s my takeaway from reading this research – we need to switch off, and if possible, get away. Look at taking mini-breaks on a regular basis, every few months or so, and for your ideal vacation – researchers found it was eight days.