Does your holiday do you any good? 10 insights from psychology.

It’s the time of year where many of us are lucky enough to be heading off somewhere nice and warm for a restorative winter holiday. But Blind Freddy himself would notice the unfortunate fact that holidays can also trigger significantly elevated stress levels, especially prior to ‘The Last Day in The Office’ as well as a nasty predilection to collapsing into an unwell snivelling heap during the first week away. What’s all that about eh?

When I saw the article in this month’s The Psychologist on ‘Making Holidays Work’ I read it with particular interest – I’ve attached a link to the full article here (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/august-2015/making-holidays-work) for those who want to see original research references. For the rest of you here’s my top 10 insights in note form:

  1. Although holidays are considered a source of happiness, life satisfaction and an essential ingredient for quality of life (especially lowering risk of serious heart related problems) the benefits can be horribly short lived and can come at quite a cost, psychological more so than financial. So, don’t just budget dollars budget some emotional health costs too.
  2. Health and wellbeing significantly declines in the last week before departure because of increased and unrealistic workloads, and this is even more pronounced for women who additionally experience a rise in the home load. Note to self – remember to delegate more to partner and children in the lead up.
  3. Physical complaints within the first few days are a widespread problem – this is referred to as ‘transitory stress’, ‘environment shock’ or ‘leisure sickness’with several studies recognising the start of a holiday period can be spoiled by high blood pressure, poor sleep quality, bad mood, lack of initiative, fever, migraine and stomach upsets. So, it’s not just anecdotal, holidays definitely can be bad for our health.
  4. WHY this phenomenon occurs isn’t fully known as yet, but experts observe it has a striking resemblance to something called ‘immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome’ which originates in the sudden deprivation of corticosteroids, (i.e. major stress hormones). In normal language, I interpret that as meaning that the human body cannot cope with suddenly downshifting from being ‘massively stressed’ (as we are in the pre-holiday manic period) to being ‘nicely chilled’. A stressed human body working on full speed in the weeks preceding a holiday will go into toxic shock from withdrawing from stress too quickly!
  5. So, smooth the transition from ‘stressed at work’ to ‘relaxed holiday’ mode by building in some time to head to the gym for an extra-long, hard workout after your last day in the office. This will help you mentally disengage from your work, and perhaps more importantly start to get rid of the stress hormones and prevent physical ailments. However you do it, the guidance is to slow down gradually rather than coming to a screeching halt from stopping work. Don’t fly out the same day you finish work, better to build a day or so in at the start for preparing to detach – see next point!
  6. Holiday boosters – take control by setting your out-of-office message until the day after you are due back (so you can have a sneaky bonus day to get back on top of things), leave your work phone at home if you feasibly can, refrain from checking emails and make clear arrangements regarding delegations and availability during your absence. Plan to resume work mid-week rather than on a Monday, so you can start back gradually and avoid putting your system into reverse shock all over again. To help savour your holiday afterglow, use photos of your favourite experiences as new screensavers, and practice mindfulness whilst on holidays to make experiences more intense and memorable. And finally, although the appeal of a 5 week long mega break is obvious, experts advise us to avoid such ‘binge vacationing’ not only because holiday effects fade fast irrespective of length of break but also because regular shorter breaks have a stronger impact on our overall sense of vitality and energy and because it ensures you don’t put all your eggs in the one ‘perfect holiday’ basket.
  7. Recover to discover – job stressors such as time pressure, cognitive and emotional demands deplete our creative resources by demanding constant attention and whilst holidays won’t magically transform us into DeBono, the moments we have on holiday of being stress free are believed to be the contributing reason as to why holidays definitely do help us produce more diverse thinking, with higher levels of mental flexibility – travel does broaden the mind!
  8. This one is especially aimed at all the workaholics out there. Want to know what happens when perfectionists and workaholics go on holiday? Withdrawal symptoms? Miss your work so badly, feel fidgety or even guilty? Deprived of your ‘drug’? Or does going on holiday represent a very rare chance for you to cognitively disengage, providing relief and detachment from your usual high levels of job stress? Research suggests that whilst both of these scenarios can be true, workaholics in fact benefit from holidays every bit as much as everyone else, with some studies suggesting even more so, BUT…be aware – they lose more upon returning – experiencing a much more sudden and significant crash in wellbeing. Even more important for you guys to plan a graduated return.
  9. ‘Conservation of resources’ studies prove that employees who feel mentally and physically refreshed experience their work as effortless, are willing to help colleagues and display other forms of desirable organisational citizenship behaviours as well as feel they perform their jobs better – some studies show that only one day of holiday produces an average increase in performance ratings of 8% – so resting up and putting fuel back in our tanks is a good thing!
  10. And to the biggest question of all – is it less stressful to check in and stay across what’s happening back at work, or try to (but maybe become more anxious) NOT do any work at all, switching off totally for the duration? Interestingly, the crucial issue does not seem to be whether you do or you don’t (log-on), but whether you feel you have the choice to freely d24-holidayworkecide what and how to use your time, with complete control and without imposition. This is in keeping with self-determination theory.  Speaking personally, if you’re going to work whilst on holiday with family or friends, I’d suggest you carefully square this away first, manage expectations and stick to your word or there will be trouble ahead!

In summary – whilst a holiday is definitely not a panacea for all work-ills and nor can it compensate as a trade-off for constant imbalance between work and personal lives, evidence shows us over and over again that it can boost health, wellbeing and performance, at least temporarily. To increase the longevity of holiday benefits, focus not so much on where you’re going or what to do, but on getting off to a smooth start, disengaging from everyday worries, maximising autonomy and freedom to choose whilst away, and ensuring a great ‘last day’ and graduated return.

So, here’s to happy holidays !