The ideal vacation would seem to be eight days. After that, the feeling of well-being declines (although not as much as it does when you return to the office). That's part of some fascinating research by organizational and work psychologist Jessica de Bloom – a native of Germany now at the University of Tampere in Finland – covering factors from how much angst occurs before a vacation to whether we're more creative afterward.
Interested in health and work, she decided for her doctorate to look into something common but surprisingly unresearched: Vacations. Since vacations come in various sizes and shapes, she focused on three: A short, two or three-day break in the study respondents' home country (the Netherlands, at the time); a winter vacation of eight to 10 days; and a summer vacation of three weeks, common in Europe if only envied here in North America.
Well-being was assessed with a series of quick questions probing how well individuals slept, how healthy they felt, and their mood and energy levels. She found well-being increased quite quickly on vacation, so that on the second day, when she started measuring, it was noticeably higher than during the baseline period well before the vacation. (The timing was deliberate, so as not to reflect prevacation tensions). But the peak of well-being tended to be eight days. After that, it tended to come down a bit, although not nearly to the prevacation level.
That finding is in line with those of a colleague who tried a different tack, going to a popular vacation spot, probing how people felt, and asking them how long they had been on vacation. Again, well-being increased until about eight days from the vacation's inception, when it declined.
She doesn't know the reason but assumes it has something to do with starting to anticipate the end of this period away from work. Research shows that we sleep poorly on Sunday night, as we prepare mentally for the work week, perhaps even checking e-mails and planning our schedule.
The vacation effect fades quickly on the return to office, essentially gone after a week. The research found we're back to the baseline level of well-being at that point – but not worse.
"We didn't see that longer holidays had a deeper or more long-lasting effect on health and well-being. And long holidays may carry a risk as you need to prepare more in advance and more work accumulates when you're away so it's more difficult when you return. It seems to make sense to spread your holidays throughout the year," she said in an interview.
Does that mean North Americans, who sometimes feel hard-pressed to take a week's vacation, might have the smarter approach than in Europe, with countries virtually shutting down as people take off for three- and four-week stretches? Not to her mind. Europeans have a legal right to four weeks of holidays annually, which she believes is better for health. Even somebody taking a new job is entitled to a month's vacation. In North America, not only are vacation rights more tenuous, they are also unequally distributed, with the less educated and women getting the least. "On average, Americans only have it for nine days a year. That's not healthy long term," she said.
Ms. de Bloom also looked into "obsessive workers" in an attempt to understand the impact of vacations on workaholics. She notes it would be hard to research workaholics, since they are unlikely to take three-week vacations, so she settled for studying people who are more obsessed with work than the average person. As you might expect, their well-being was lower before the vacation started but interestingly during the vacation they recovered, and did not work more hours when off than people who are less compulsive. But when they returned, their hours increased and their well-being decreased to a greater extent than the comparison group. "They have a greater gain on the holiday but lose more on returning," she said.
There was an unexpected finding, however, on rumination – the tendency to worry about work. While obsessive workers generally showed higher rates of rumination than non-obsessive workers during non-vacation periods, during the vacation, both groups were at the same level. And although rumination increased upon return, it still remained lower for the compulsive workers after a full two weeks than the baseline period. So holidays have a big impact on worry about work.
The stress of preparing for a vacation reduces well-being in the two weeks before the time away. The impact is even greater on women because not only is their workload at the office increased to prepare for vacation but the same is happening on the home front. But she stresses that the decrease in well-being before a vacation is still smaller than the increase while away. So it's worth going.
It's also worth vacationing because of the impact on creativity. Cognitive flexibility rises after a vacation – we are able to come up with a greater range of ideas. However, the originality of those ideas – how new and innovative they truly are – stays the same as before the vacation.
Her work also highlights the importance of autonomy. While at work, our autonomy can be restricted. So on vacation, it's important that we feel in control as we have the chance to use our time for our own interests. When vacationing with family, however, we sometimes can feel trapped into doing activities that appeal to others, not us. "It's important to discuss it beforehand, what you want to do, and find compromises. That's not always easy, but you need to try," she says.
Make those crucial eight days count.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter