The art – and science – of taking a vacation

January 6, 2014 | Hamilton, Ontario
Contributed by Aaron Schat, Associate Professor, Area Chair, Human Resources and Management

tropicalAs the new year begins and as the temperatures outside are subzero and promise to remain there for several more months, many people begin dreaming about and making plans for a winter vacation. For some, this may involve embracing the cold by going somewhere to ski or engage in other winter activities. For others, this may involve fleeing the cold by going somewhere closer to the equator.

Whatever the destination may be, a vacation at this time of year can provide wonderful opportunities to spend time with family and friends, and to recharge by having some time away from the cold weather and from the demands of one’s daily work.

However, the well-being benefits of a vacation are only likely to occur, and remain for a time after the vacation, if certain conditions are met. So, before you leave, here are some suggestions – backed up by research – that should help make that vacation more restorative, and your subsequent return to work more productive.

Disengagement is not always a bad thing. Doing job-related work while on vacation can undermine the benefits of vacation. So, do yourself and your family a favour by truly disconnecting from your work. And that includes avoiding accessing work via portable electronics. If you must check work-related texts, email or voice mail, commit to doing it during a narrow window of time during the day.

Do yourself and your family a favour by truly disconnecting from your work. And that includes…accessing work via portable electronics.

It can be hard work to take a vacation. For some people, the nature of their work – and their personality – makes it difficult for them to transition from “work mode” to “vacation mode.” There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to this, so if this is true of you, consider what makes this transition difficult for you and take steps to smooth this transition. The next strategy should help with this.

Prepare for your time away. The healthy disengagement I referred to earlier is most likely to occur if you finish the work you need to do before starting your holiday. So, in the time that remains before your vacation begins, set clear goals for what you plan to accomplish and then work toward achieving those goals during that time. This will give you a sense of accomplishment and smooth your transition into your time off.

Prepare your transition back to work. For many, taking time off usually involves a mad scramble to get a high volume of work done before the vacation and returning to a high volume of work after the vacation. Unfortunately, research shows that these two things can undermine and undo any potential benefits of vacation. There is, of course, nothing wrong with working hard before and after a vacation. But, if, after a vacation, you are going to try to reclaim every hour of work you “lost” while on vacation, you will probably feel more depleted than you would have had you not taken the vacation in the first place.

A vacation does not need to be relaxing to be beneficial.

What you do during vacation affects your well-being both during and after vacation. A vacation does not need to be relaxing to be beneficial. In fact, playing hard or working hard at something new or challenging while on vacation, can optimize both the health benefits of the vacation and your work effectiveness after the vacation. So when the snow falls, try out that new pair of snowshoes you got for Christmas last year. Or help your neighbour shovel his driveway or split and stack that pile of firewood. If you are vacationing somewhere warm, try snorkelling or some other activity you haven’t tried before. And if you are taking a “staycation“, try volunteering at a local charity. You may be surprised at how enriching these activities are.

If you are among those who are able to take a break from your daily work at this time of year, then give these strategies a try. Here’s hoping that they will help you to master the art, and science, of vacationing well.

Aaron Schat is an associate professor and the area Chair, Human Resources and Management at DeGroote. Professor Schat’s research interests are in the areas of work-related stress, health, and safety.

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