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The health benefits — and perils — of taking vacations

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Psychologist Jessica de Bloom: “There is a lot of scientific evidence demonstrating that a holiday boosts health and wellbeing and positively affects work performance, at least temporarily.”

American workers who take regular vacations have a significantly stronger sense of well-being than those who don’t. And it doesn’t matter what their income is.

In fact, according to a 2014 Gallup poll, people who earned less than $24,000 annually and who say they take regular vacations scored, on average, about 20 percent higher on a well-being scale than people who earned more than $100,000 but say they don’t make the time to get regular breaks from work.

Those on the lower end of the pay scale are, however, half as likely as those on the higher end to actually take vacations, probably because they lack the money and, perhaps, the time.

Overall, about 49 percent of Americans take regular trips or vacations, the Gallup poll revealed.

Benefits are many

That number is far too low. We should be taking more — and longer — vacations. For as an article in the August issue of The Psychologist, the magazine of the British Psychological Society, points out, “There is a lot of scientific evidence demonstrating that a holiday boosts health and wellbeing and positively affects work performance, at least temporarily.”

The author of the article, Jessica de Bloom, a postdoc psychologist at the University of Tampere in Finland, cites her own recent research as an example of that evidence. In a series of studies involving about 250 Dutch employees, de Bloom and her colleagues found that workers’ experienced “medium-sized” improvement in health and well-being during their vacations — improvements that increased as the vacations progressed.

A 2013 Swedish study [PDF], she adds, found a fascinating correlation between the number of people on vacation in that country and a decline in the use of antidepressants.

Unfortunately, the positive benefits of vacations seem to be short-lived. In de Bloom’s studies, the workers’ well-being returned to pre-vacation levels with a week of being back on the job — no matter what the workers did while they were away or how long they were gone.

Other research, including U.S. data from the large, ongoing Framingham Heart Study, reported an association between taking frequent vacations and a lower risk of heart disease, including heart attacks. But, as de Bloom points out, people who take regular vacations may have healthier lifestyles to begin with — a factor that would then explain the lower risk of heart disease.

(FYI: De Bloom takes pains to note that findings on the effects of vacations in the United States, “where employees are entitled to a meager 10 days of annual leave,” may not always be applicable in Europe. Workers in the United Kingdom, for example, are entitled to a minimum of 5.6 weeks of annual vacation, she says.)

The dangers of ‘down-shifting’

Vacations are not without their health perils, however, and one particularly hazardous time is in the week or so before a vacation starts.

One Dutch study found that “health and wellbeing decrease in the last week before departure,” writes de Bloom. “This decline was related to rising levels of workload and was even more pronounced in women, who additionally experience a rise in home load.”

The first few days of a vacation can also give rise to various physical complaints, sometimes known as “leisure sickness.”

“Several studies suggest that the start of a holiday period is for many people spoiled by high blood pressure, poor sleep quality, bad mood and lack of initiative, as well as more serious bodily symptoms such as fever, migraine or an upset stomach,” says de Bloom.

“The etiology of these phenomena is not yet well understood,” she adds, “but many symptoms show a striking resemblance to immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome, which originates in sudden deprivation of corticosteroids, major stress hormones. Imagine the reaction of your car engine if you changed from fifth gear directly to first gear. In the same manner, a stressed human body working on full-speed in the weeks preceding holiday has trouble with downshifting in a flash.”

Tips for a getting the most out of a vacation

What can we do to maximize the benefits of our vacations and minimize their perils? De Bloom offers a long list of tips, including the following: 

  • Exercise at the end of your last work day. Job stress activates your body for action by releasing stress hormones into your bloodstream. Smoothe the transition to lazy life by heading to the gym after your last day at the office. This will help you to mentally disengage from your work, get rid of the stress hormones and prevent physical complaints during your first days off work. If you’re a couch potato, try gradually reducing work hours during your last work week and take a firm walk home on your last work day.
  • Set an out-of-0ffice reply for your work e-mail … and make sure that it’s on until a day after your return. This way, you can sneak back into your office, prioritise your work and possibly even surprise colleagues with an earlier-than-expected reply.
  • Detach and take control. Leave your work phone at home, refrain from checking your e-mails and make clear arrangements concerning your availability during your absence. Also remember:Getting in touch with the office at a time that suits you is much better than an unexpected call during family dinner. You determine if and when you are available for work!
  • Start slowly. Resume work on Wednesday instead of Mondays or gradually build up working times during your first week back at the office. In any case, prevent overtime after work resumption. A stress-free return to work and relaxing activities during the evening after work help to preserve positive vacation effects and savour your ‘holiday afterglow.”

You can read de Bloom’s article on The Psychologist’s website.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/29/2015 - 09:30 am.

    Seems accurate

    As a teacher, I could have taken – and for a few summers at the beginning of my career, did take – a summer job to supplement my meager salary. Eventually, I decided my mental and physical well-being required a sustained break from the emotional and physical burdens of the classroom. I could choose to have less income, or I could choose to be healthier and more relaxed during the school year. I chose the former, and do not regret the choice. Money and health are not at all synonymous, and while I and my family would surely have benefited from having more income, we benefited just as much, I think, from my ability to take the unpaid summer vacation, whether we actually traveled or not.

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