Vacations are about more than dips into the pool or long naps (though those are nice). The time away from work and possibly spent with loved ones is good for our physical and mental health, as study after study shows.
Sure, researchers can’t account for how every vacation detail might change how people feel when they clock back into work, says Brooks Gump, a public health researcher at Syracuse University. “The quality of the vacation, the length of the vacation, where they go, who they go with, the relationship with the people they go with, all of those are variables,” he says. But the benefits of time off are clear, as are some workplace qualities that will likely dampen what people get out of their time away.
Time Off For Your Brain and Body
When researchers find evidence that vacations improve the quality of people’s lives, they often investigate “well-being,” or people’s emotions and energy levels. For example, in one study assessing how a weeklong winter vacation changed people’s lives, the researchers asked about rest — how well participants slept the night before, how much energy or fatigue they felt they had — and emotions like their mood, how tense they felt, and how satisfied they were with how the day went. Generally, vacations made people feel less fatigued and more energized, improved their moods and left them more satisfied with their days.
Not having the demands of work to deal with removes stress, but psychologists think there could be a few other ways vacation improves “well-being” too. Engaging in things we enjoy, like sports or reading, means our attention is elsewhere. Time away from the desk also changes our routines, and might help people to move past bad habits or have mental clarity about other parts of their life. “Therefore, a vacation may help to build up enduring personal resources that may function as a buffer for future threats,” writes Jessica de Bloom, a psychologist at the University of Groningen and University of Tampere, and her colleagues in their study looking at winter vacation benefits.
Research also suggests the benefits of time away from the office go as deep as your heart. In a survey asking nearly 2,500 men at high risk for heart disease about recent life events, one of the questions asked if they had taken a vacation in the last year. Participants took the survey five years in a row, and then researchers checked in on the men nine years after that. Those who took more frequent annual vacations were less likely to have died (or have died from heart disease) than those who didn’t.
That vacations might prolong your life is still a pretty early finding that needs more research, says Gump, who conducted the study with his co-author Karen Matthews. And for a vacation to change someone’s heart health, the benefits of the time off have to last longer than just the official out-of-office days. “Whatever happens on the vacation,” Gump says, “you have to basically ... fade in or fade out sufficiently to give an effect on something that's slow developing, like heart disease.” In other words, simply running during the week away in Los Angeles isn’t going to be what meaningfully changes someone’s blood pressure.
In later studies, he and his colleagues found possible evidence of how vacations manage a lasting effect. While tracking employee health leading up to and after time off, the team found that the more stressed someone was, the more their heart rate went up when time off was far in the future. The power a workplaces had over someone’s pulse faded as the vacation drew closer. If people can mentally prepare for a bad thing to happen and feel anticipatory stress, then maybe we can also experience anticipatory relaxation, Gump says.
What Makes A Good Vacation
And though we might vacation to get away from our jobs, how we interact with and feel about our workplaces follows us throughout the trip. In studying teachers before, during and after a week of vacation, researchers found that the time off made the educators less depressed, anxious and emotionally exhausted. But for the perfectionist teachers in the group, the emotional benefits of vacation were much smaller when work tasks dragged into their time off. A vacation is a chance to disengage and stop anticipating work-related worries or problems, something that’s hard to do if you’re still actually working, Gump says.
How well-rewarded people feel for their efforts at work changes their experience with time off, too. In the weeks leading up to and after vacation, Gump and his colleagues asked study participants about how happy, calm, or energetic they felt, as well as how depressed, anxious or angry they were. People who felt like they were appropriately compensated — not financially but in how much job security they felt or the amount of worry or time the tasks demanded — benefitted less from the vacation.
Whereas those who felt less work stress saw their negative feelings like anxiety and anger decrease before vacation, those who dealt with more work worries felt those emotions mostly the same before and after the break. People with low work-related stress also saw positive feelings of happiness and calmness increase before vacation, while those with more work stress didn’t. Other research investigating specifically the sense of job security found something similar: Those who returned to a work environment where they felt less stable in the job were more exhausted upon return.
Doing research on vacation can be challenging, Gump says. Employers that could collaborate on the efforts might want to own the data, and if there’s any risk that the study could show some vacations aren’t actually relaxing, companies benefiting from the tourism industry are wary of participating. Learning more is hard, even though there is much more to understand. “The characteristics of a ‘good vacation’ are, right now, just theoretical,” Gump says. But who is to say you can’t conduct your own study of one and figure out what vacation is most relaxing and restorative for you?