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May 15, 2017

Benefits of Going On Vacation: Mental Health and Productivity

Who killed summer vacation? That’s the million dollar question — literally. Long gone are the days of casually taking a few weeks off with the family to go on a road trip, or jetting off to a remote destination where the real world ceases to exist.

This is the problem recently addressed by Jack Dickey in a June issue of TIME Magazine, where he talks about the raising concerns and effects of workers not taking their deserved time off — even when paid to. We’ve all seen it. Most of us have even been this person at one point or another: You know, the one who sits poolside at a resort glued to their smartphone or laptop, and whose entire holiday itinerary revolves around whether or not WiFi will be readily available.

Because while traditionally vacations were meant to restore and rejuvenate, our cultural unwillingness to truly “unplug” from everything, especially in today’s digital age, has proven to be more exhausting and stressful than just staying in the office — a mindset that is seriously hurting us mentally, physically and professionally.

According to reports, Americans are taking less vacation days now than at any point in the past four decades. And 61 per cent of the Americans who do plan on taking their paid vacation days say they will be continuing to do work, send emails, and make business calls while away.

So, What’s Wrong with Vacation?

When surveyed, the top three reasons cited by people for not taking their vacation days were:

  • Heavier workload upon returning from holiday
  • Nobody else can do the work
  • Can’t afford to take it

What Does This Mean?

Whether we are at home, away, or in the office, many of us are constantly working. To quote USA Today, “The United States is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday”. So naturally with all this work and no play, one would think that companies and the workplace are becoming more productive, right? Unfortunately, the answer is no. What is happening however, is that we are breeding a society of overworked, uninspired, physically exhausted, and mentally worn out adults whose health, happiness, motivation, and personal relationships are also deteriorating as a result.

Overwhelmed, Overworked and Unproductive!

As a psychiatrist, I can’t stress enough the importance of downtime, unplugging, and rest to my patients. In fact, the most effective prescriptions I write are often lifestyle recommendations such as sleeping more, making meaningful social connections, routine regular exercise. Think of it this way, the best athletes know that without adequate rest, their bodies can’t perform or train as efficiently — this is no different when it comes to the brain! If we are constantly tired, how can our brains possibly be working at full capacity? Our brains need to rest in order to function at optimum capacity. The term “recreation” comes from the root “to re-create.”

The problem is many people don’t realize just how exhausted and stressed they are until given the opportunity to actually take time off.

As marketing expert Donny Deutsch puts it, “I didn’t realize how unproductive I’d become until I came back from a vacation, where you go, ‘Oh my God, this is what a mind feels like?'”

A study done by the Tatung University of Taiwan, published in New Scientist Magazine, has shown that driving even for 80 minutes straight without frequent rest stops greatly decreases a driver’s rate of reaction, increasing the risk of accidents. Now compare this to people working day in and day out without as much as taking two weeks off in the entire year–with over half of those people not even getting any real rest during those two weeks–you can just imagine the rate of deterioration that would happen to their overall mental capacity and work productivity.

On a positive note, in light of all this information, we now have progressive companies who are coming forward and updating their paid vacation policies–even going as far as offering incentives in bonuses to employees who take all of their vacation days, contingent on the premise that they are doing absolutely zero work on their days off. Because these companies understand that they benefit more and observe higher work productivity from well-rested and balanced individuals who work less months over the year, versus those who work non-stop 12 months a year to the point of burnout.

Resting for your Health and Sanity: Paying the Price

Time is money. Or more specifically, your time is money. According to the study ‘Project: Time Off’ conducted by the U.S. Travel Association, “The value of one forgone day, where workers are de facto volunteers for their employers, totals an average of $504 per employee. Therefore, the value of those 169 million lost days is significant–$52.4 billion in forfeited benefits.”

That is a significant value in benefits that employees are entitled to and yet choosing to forego every year! Instead, they are putting their mental, emotional, and physical health at risk, sacrificing personal relationships, and often end up having to spend their hard-earned money on healthcare due to all of the stress. Because an overwhelmed brain not only results in poor decision making skills and lack of creativity, but also a weakened nervous and immune system. Mental health disorders begin to arise in the forms of depression, severe anxiety, eating disorders, just to name a few. Other health problems that may occur due to lack of rest and stress include: heart disease, autoimmune diseases, insomnia, allergies, accelerated cell aging, cancer, diabetes, the list is simply endless.

The Cure: Less Work, More Play

The next time you think about skipping that well-deserved paid vacation, don’t! And the next time you feel tempted to reach out for your smartphone or laptop while away, focus on being present instead. No matter what, your work will still be there for you when you get back and there will always be more to do. Allow yourself to be rewarded for all your hard work and achievements, and in turn be rewarded with mental clarity, energy, a fresh perspective and overall improved health. Use this time to relax, reflect and repair your mind and body. As a result, your health, relationships and career will absolutely prosper from it.

If you’re concerned about the heavy workload upon returning to work, plan your schedule out ahead of time and figure out a way to complete most of your tasks prior to leaving, or set up the ground work that makes it easier for you to pick up where you left off. When you are well-prepared and show that you are able to maintain (or even increase) productivity after taking time off, it will only prove your capability and value to the company, as well as the benefits of encouraging employees to go on vacation.

Now, excuse me while I head to the beach with my family and indulge in a few good books I have been meaning to read. Life, when you allow it, is really good.