The Nonvacationer’s Vacation

Think time off is a waste of time? For the sake of your health and happiness, you just might want to reconsider.

On vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine, I stood atop Cadillac Mountain in silent reverie, mesmerized by the panoramic view of Acadia National Park. Eager to share the moment, I turned to my companion — just as he called the office from his cell phone. “Any new messages for me?” he boomed.

I stalked off in a huff, but I understood. For some of us, vacations are difficult. While taking time away from work is designed to relieve stress, it can also create some of its own. First there’s the scheduling, planning and travel preparations. Then there’s the shift in daily routine and the worrying while you are away. These converging anxieties can make vacations seem like more trouble than they’re worth.

But experts agree that we shouldn’t let such worries prevent us from saying bon voyage on a regular basis. Vacations, they say, bestow emotional and physical health benefits that lead to greater life satisfaction and may even improve our work performance overall.

Outwrangle Your Resistance

If you’re a chronic nonvacationer, you’re not alone. According to the Families and Work Institute (FWI), a New York–based nonprofit research center, 79 percent of employees had access to paid leave in 2004, but 36 percent had not taken and were not planning to take their full vacations. Yet more than half reported feeling overwhelmed with their workloads.

So why do we resist vacations? One reason is guilt, says Joe Robinson, work-life consultant and author of Work to Live: A Guide to Getting a Life (Berkley Publishing Group, 2003). According to U.S. News and World Report, almost 40 percent of us work more than 50 hours a week already; should our overworked colleagues have to cover for us while we’re gone? And since employers disdain slackers, will our jobs be waiting when we return?

“We’re the only country in the industrialized world without a paid-leave law,” Robinson notes, “which is why your vacation feels about as legit as a bank heist.”

Give Yourself a Reason

If you need help legitimizing your next vacation, consider this: Regular breaks from the workplace are good insurance against burning out before your time.

FWI reports that 26 percent of workers find they are “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.” The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports that healthcare costs are up to 50 percent greater for workers with the highest levels of stress.

“Studies have shown that vacations can decrease the risk of heart attacks by 32 percent in men ages 35 to 57, and cut the risk of death in half for women ages 45 to 64,” Robinson says.

But good vacations don’t just undo stress; they may also produce happier and healthier employees. One FWI study found that among workers who take seven days or more off, 85 percent return feeling relaxed. Robinson, for one, believes that the positive feelings we bring back with us from vacation improve our performance ˙ on the job. “People who get real vacation time are healthier as a result and don’t get sick as often,” he says. They also have less resentment that they can’t ever get away. And resentment, continues Robinson, can play a significant role in absenteeism.

There’s evidence that vacations also support us in enjoying more balanced lives. After living for eight years in Australia, where Aussie workers seemed never to skip vacation, Cathy McCarty, PhD, senior research scientist and director of the Center for Human Genetics at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Wisconsin, studied psychological stress, quality of marital life and disrupted home life because of work in 1,500 U.S. women, comparing vacationers to nonvacationers.

McCarty discovered that nearly 20 percent took vacation once every six years or less. She also found that women who vacationed more experienced less tension, depression and fatigue, and enjoyed a higher level of marital satisfaction.

Embrace Change

To vacate means: “to cease to occupy or hold; to give up.” What entrenched patterns or territory will you give up? A go-go salesperson might need to kick back in one place for a while. Someone who works in a quiet cubicle, however, might forgo the hammock and seek adventure instead.

If you feel you must accomplish something during your time off, consider going on a retreat that includes classes, a sports clinic or some other type of learning experience. Or take a volunteering vacation: Clean castles in France or protect endangered loggerhead turtles in Greece (see “Virtuous Vacations” in the March 2004 archive).

“Active engagement, novelty and challenge are what lead to life satisfaction,” Robinson says. Recharging your batteries by trying something new will not only make you feel better, but also boost your creative energy when you’re back at work.

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to bring your work along. Ditch the cell phone, the laptop — and your worries about how things are going without you.

Instead of measuring your vacation in terms of output, Robinson suggests, focus on input instead. Think of vacation as refilling your well before it runs dry. Savor your opportunity to simply be in the world, with nothing required of you, and trust you’ll come back better for it.

Cathy Madison is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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