How to maximize the restorative benefits of mini-vacations.
(Originally published in Newsweek. Photo: Tom Merton/Getty)
Without a doubt, the nonstop demands of work and life can take a toll on your well-being, depleting your physical resources and cognitive capacities—and possibly resulting in adverse health and performance results.
Taking a real break is important for so many reasons. Research emphatically shows that vacations improve our physical and mental health while also boosting our performance at work. Perhaps surprisingly, they can even increase the likelihood of receiving a raise or promotion.
But that doesn't mean we always use our vacation time. In fact, nearly half of U.S. workers take less time off than their job allows, leaving an average of 9.5 days of paid time off (PTO) on the table. And for 30 percent of employees, this unused vacation time doesn't roll over to the next year.
Even if many workers don't use all their PTO, taking mini-vacations throughout the year can improve their overall well-being.
Why Employees Don't Take Enough Vacation
We know that being on vacation feels good and that it's good for us. So why do we neglect to take all the time we've earned? Naturally, there is the expense, and the logistics involved in long trips can be daunting.
It also turns out that taking extended time away from the office causes a lot of stress. A 2023 Pew Research Center survey of over 5,900 U.S. workers found the following:
49 percent of participants indicated they worried they might fall behind at work.
43 percent said they felt badly about their co-workers taking on more work.
Nearly 20 percent cited concerns that taking more vacation time might hurt their chances of job advancement.
16 percent worried they might risk losing their job.
No wonder, then, that most people don't use all their vacation time. And over half (52 percent) of U.S. employees work while on vacation.
How Mini-Vacations Can Boost Your Well-Being
Whether or not this vacation-related anxiety comes from reasonable reasons isn't the question. The U.S. is not the only developed country to have a hustle culture, and making changes despite the influence of systemic forces takes time.
The good news is that it's not necessary to take a long vacation to get many of the benefits. In fact, taking shorter breaks throughout the year may be more beneficial for your mental well-being and performance than taking one long vacation.
In other words, you can get the benefits of a vacation without incurring the stress of an extended time away.
Consider this research. Vacations are proven to increase positive emotions, but that boost in happiness is short-lived. At the same time, anticipating your trip yields an extended period of increased happiness. So taking multiple shorter trips throughout the year allows for more opportunities to boost your mood.
Additionally, a 2021 study in the journal Annals of Tourism Research Empirical Insights shows that short breaks achieve restorative benefits on par with longer vacations and even edge out vacations in the recovery of cognitive capacity.
So while longer vacations can be lovely, shorter breaks offer a practical and highly effective way to gain similar restorative benefits.
And those restorative benefits are very much needed right now. With burnout, currently a very real problem among both managers and their teams, still at alarmingly high levels, it's critical for leaders to demonstrate that they're serious about taking time off.
Because, understandably, if you say to your team members, "It's no problem, take the week off" but then you don't do the same, your team members will start to hesitate in taking vacation time and feel guilty if they do. What you say is less important than what you do. And ultimately, by scheduling some breaks, you can ensure you don't unintentionally increase job stress and burnout on your team.
Great news, right? Now all you need to do is choose a weekend and plan a real getaway.
Maximizing the Restorative Benefits of Time Off
Many workers don't feel comfortable taking extended time off. But luckily, research suggests that the activities and experiences that you engage in are more important than the length of time you are off.
As you plan your next long weekend or mini-vacation, here's how to maximize its restorative benefits:
Intentionally detach from work as fully as possible.
Choose an environment that allows you to feel removed from your regular routine and responsibilities.
Steer clear of settings that feel confusing, chaotic or tension-inducing, like heavy traffic and tight schedules.
Spend time engaging in "soft fascination" activities that effortlessly hold your attention yet provide ample room for reflection (like unwinding in nature).
Limit the time you spend doing work-like activities, such as driving, using a computer or completing errands.
Even if you have limited PTO days available, the benefits of short recharges are undeniable. Look at your calendar now and pick a few long weekends in the next quarter or two. You'll have something to look forward to and can return to work restored—which will be good for you and good for your team.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina