We Need to Be OK With Taking Vacation — Our Health Depends on It

Why are we OK with burnout?

Vacations are supposed to be enjoyable. A time to hit pause. Sleep in. Catch some sun. Catch up with your family and friends. But when most of us think of taking time off for a timeout, a slew of baggage comes to mind with that break — and not just the type you have to pack for your getaway.

First, you won’t be in the office for that presentation your team’s been working on. Second, someone else will inevitably have to pick up your slack. Third, how much of a break will you really be getting? You’ll be tuned in to your buzzing phone anyway — you know, just in case of a work emergency, or so you won’t have to dig out from emails when you return, you reason to yourself. On second thought, maybe it’s easier to put off that vacation until things “slow down.”

It sucks us in every time.

Americans are work martyrs, according to a new report from Project: Time Off, an effort aimed at transforming our nation’s view of vacation days. We leave $224 billion in unused vacation time on balance sheets each year.

More than a third of couples (36 percent) argue about the amount of time spent on work obligations versus family obligations. In households where workers have paid time off, roughly seven in 10 say a work issue has resulted in a missed or interrupted child’s ball game, family vacation, or even funeral — yet four in 10 are leaving an excess of paid vacation time on the table each year.

Vacation time is not wasted time, though. It’s valuable time that we aren’t utilizing.

Why Aren’t We Taking Time Off?

As a country, we suffer from something called “presenteeism,” says Ken Yeager, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program.

“It’s the opposite of absenteeism,” he tells Yahoo Health. “And it’s such an American thing. While traveling through Europe, there’s a much more relaxed feel. Today, when we take time off, we’re wracked with guilt that someone else is having to take on our workload, and fear that things will fall apart when we walk away.”

Today, our work also defines us more than ever before. Imagine going to a dinner party, where you must introduce yourself to a handful of new people. What do you say? According to psychologist Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield, we used to define ourselves by our own interests, our families or relationships. But these days, “most people introduce themselves by what they do, rather than who they are,” Ivankovich says. “They say, ‘Hi, I’m Joe, the director of XYZ, as opposed to, ‘I’m Joe, a family man who manages to work long hours and still get home to eat dinner —but only after coaching little league, and then falling in bed exhausted.’”

This shift in work as the primary source of identity is also the reason unemployment hits people so hard, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Our work lives are central to our sense of self,” he tells Yahoo Health. “This is why people who suddenly become unemployed often suffer from depression and a sense of aimlessness. It also affects stay-at-home parents, who feel like they don’t have a workplace to help define them.”

Our minds are always consumed by the demands of the job, probably more so now than ever before. Workplace culture has shifted — even from just a couple decades ago. Seniority, loyalty, and longevity have been replaced by youth, productivity, and economy.

Do you define yourself by what you do?

That shift has come with a sense of anxiety. “As difficult economic times loomed overhead, employers started expecting individuals to do more, with less,” says Ivankovich. “In many situations, this meant taking on additional duties or even absorbing the positions of others. In order to maintain gainful employment, people began working harder for fear of losing their jobs.”

And with families so geographically separated now, even nuclear families, time off has begun to look like more of a burden than a break at times, says Markman. “Americans have lost the tradition of family vacations,”he explains. “Instead, people take time off to go see family members — but that is rarely a relaxing trip.”

So, we just don’t take those trips. Or get away from the office at all.

We are actually conditioned to put off “breaks,” says Yeager. Driven people have put their heads down for years, pushing their career forward with sheer force of will. “Think of a doctor or a lawyer, for instance. How many years have they invested in getting where they are?” Yeager asks. “The doctor delays goofing off to get good grades, to get into a good medical school, to get the residency they want, to get the fellowship — which will ultimately get them the practice.”

All that self-worth is tied up into delaying fun, Yeager says. “So what that person does must be important,” he says, explaining the mindset. Far too important to take a break.We start to get the feeling that we are too vital to leave the job. We are the cogs that really keep the machines chugging.

“We have this inflated sense that we are indispensable,” Yeager says — “even though we’re not.”

Yeager compares chronic stress at work to running on a treadmill. Excelling at work is a good thing. Getting exercise is a good thing. “But no one is going to run on that treadmill until their heart explodes, right?” he says. “You’re going to get off.”

We are a nation populated with too many exploding hearts.

The Cost of Too Much Stress and Not Enough Sleep

True vacation isn’t just about having fun. It’s about lowering stress and providing more time for sleep. And taking a mental break can happen on a smaller scale, too — actually taking weekends to relax (and not work), and knowing when to step away from email when it’s getting late and it’s time for sleep.

“When we talk about stress, we have to break it down,” says Alan Rozanski, MD, a cardiologist and director of Wellness and Prevention Programs for Mount Sinai Heart. “There’s stress that’s good for us, and stress that’s bad for us. Getting the degree, working toward the house, wanting to change the world — all that is good stress. We call that ‘challenge.’”

Rozanski published research last year in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that showed a U-shaped relationship between stress and health outcomes. This means that just a little stress is bad and a whole lot of stress is bad. “There’s a sweet spot there in the middle,” he explains.

“Stress that’s chronic is bad for us,” Rozanski says. “This is stress that feels overwhelming for a long period of time, or stress where we feel like we can’t cope. This leads to anxiety and depression, and the effects are now exceedingly well-studied.”

Rozanski says that continuously flooding the system with the stress hormone cortisol leads to a slew of costly conditions. “When those stress hormones are elevated, we start to see it wear on the body,” he explains. “We see high blood pressure, insulin resistance, higher diabetes risk, more susceptibility to illness, and a greater risk of heart disease over time.”

Not only is the American workforce stressed, but many are sleep-deprived along with it. Gallup stats show that 40 percent of the country’s adults get six hours of sleep or less per night. The average is down by more than a full hour since 1942.

And losing sleep could be deeply problematic over time, says Yeager. In 2013, early research funded by the National Institutes of Health shows the brain floods itself with cerebrospinal fluid during sleep, rapidly flushing itself of toxins. This is vital, but the entire process probably takes too much energy to carry out while the body is awake and operating. Scientists have observed this brain-cleansing effect in mice and baboons so far, and not yet humans. However, the research may provide one of the first clear glimpses as to why sleep is an essential function for living beings: Getting rest rids the body of waste.

For instance, one of the toxins removed by the brain during sleep is beta amyloid — a toxin that is associated with Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s and memory disorders are often linked to sleep disorders. Toxic build-up may also explain why we often experience cognitive fog after a particularly sleepless night, or how lack of sleep can even kill someone.

We need rest to make sure our bodies are healthy, to think clearly, and to perform at our peak. We are far more productive when we do so, something research shows time and again.

There are many examples. Stanford scientists put basketball players on a 10-hours-per-night schedule? They improve their free-throw and three-point shooting percentage by nine points a pop. A few Journal of Sleepresearchers get air-traffic controllers to take 40 minutes of rest with an average of 19 minutes of sleep each? They have better reaction times and remain more vigilant on the job.

How Do We Break Away?

So, your girlfriend is dying to take a beach getaway. Or your husband insists on a kayaking trip. It’s relatively easy to schedule a vacation and force yourself to walk away. And you should schedule that time off and take it.

But how?

If possible, you should go bigger rather than smaller, says Ivankovich. More than a couple days off will give you the best boost. “You have to break the stress cycle,” she says. “It takes two days for the mind to debrief and begin to slow down. This is why it is better to take one seven-day vacation than it is to take a long weekend; the benefit derived from taking an extended absence is far greater, and the benefit is more sustainable after a longer break.”

While scheduling that time away is definitely doable, it’s not as easy to actually rest while you’re taking time off. So “you have to find out what recharges you,” says Yeager. “Some people walk on the beach, and you can just see the stress leaving their bodies. Where are you able to best relax? Maybe for you, it’s nature. It’s camping. What are you doing while you’re there? Maybe you’re reading. Maybe you’ve got your entire album collection on a device, and you’re by the pool.”

Can’t take your mind off what you might be missing? Then you might need to really remove the temptation of “checking in,” says Yeager. Think of yourself as going into “break training.” You may have to start by taking long weekends before you graduate to week-long getaways.

Maybe leave your phone behind on the beach trip — except for a half hour of checking emails in the morning, at lunch, and at night. Or maybe you designate one full hour at night dealing with work correspondence. Or maybe — eek! — you decide to go completely Internet-free.

Yeager describes a trip to northern Europe where that connection was scarce for him. “I could really only check email at a coffee shop,” he says. “But taking a half hour to answer work email over a latte wasn’t bad at all. Have you had European coffee? The whole experience was much more relaxing.”

Remember, though, the other major point of taking breaks has nothing to do with relaxing and recharging so you can get back to work and produce again. “The most important aspect of vacations is that they create good memories,” says Markman. “This helps boost people’s overall well-being. Vacations provide families and partners a chance to reconnect outside of the hectic pace of daily life.”

So, go — to Disneyland, the Gulf Coast, a campsite, wine country, wherever. You don’t just deserve it. You need it.

Courtesy: Yahoo Health
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