Why Time Off Is Good for Your Health

Why Time Off Is Good for Your Health

Why don’t Americans take time off — especially those fortunate enough to have paid vacation?

A 2019 study by theU.S. Travel Association found that a record 768 million vacation days went unused in the previous year, with 55 percent of workers reporting they didn’t take all the paid time off their job offered.

In 2018, the average American earned 23.9 days of paid time off, but took only 17.4 days, according to the data. The total value of forfeited vacation days was estimated at $65.5 billion — money that workers, in effect, donated to their employers.

The gap between earned time off and actual time off reflects a culture of overwork in the United States, says Charlotte Fritz, PhD, an associate professor in industrial and organizational psychology at Portland State University in Oregon. Her research focuses on the interplay between experiences at and outside of work.

“What we find is high levels of workload, time pressure, and expectations to be available 24/7,” Dr. Fritz says. “That makes it difficult to mentally detach during nonwork time.”

Compound that with the fact that the United States is the only country with an advanced economy and no federal paid-vacation policy. An estimated one in four workers have neither paid vacations nor paid holidays, according to a 2019 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The always-working, no-time-off paradigm is a problem, because working longer hours, or never feeling like you’re actually away from work, can be detrimental to your mental and physical health.

A study conducted by the World Health Organization and published in the journal Environmental International in May 2021 found that worldwide, long working hours were linked to about 745,000 deaths in a year from stroke and ischemic heart disease — a 29 percent increase since 2000 in deaths linked to overwork.

Chronic overwork and stress can also lead to less deadly, but still very disruptive, health problems.

“A lot of people have concerns with headaches or back pain related to stress or sitting at a computer all day,” says Rachel Goldman, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City who is also a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “Stress absolutely can exacerbate and is related to many health conditions.”

The benefits of taking time away from work apply not just to longer breaks like vacations, but to days and extended hours off during the week, and even short breaks throughout your workday.

A vacation isn’t a substitute for taking shorter breaks from work, Fritz says. “Vacations are good for well-being, but taking time off once a year isn’t going to cut it,” she explains. “We need time off in the evenings, on the weekend.”

Here’s what you should know about how time away from work (in short, medium, and longer doses) is essential for good health.

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Not everyone, of course, can choose how and when they take a break at work — some people have breaks at set times, with limited options for how to spend these breaks. If this is you, the important thing is to still take those breaks when they come up.

“Your brain can’t focus all the time,” says Christine Carter, PhD, a sociologist and a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley, whose books include The Sweet Spot: How to Achieve More by Doing Less. “If you try to force it into the focus mode for too long, it loses its ability to do that.”

And if you do have the freedom to choose when and how you take breaks, do so wisely.

While you’re at work, look for mental or physical cues that you need a break — like taking longer than usual to write an email, or tension anywhere in your body. “Ask yourself, what do I need right now?” Dr. Goldman urges. “The key is to get ahead of stress, to manage it before the stress manages us.”

Dr. Carter, who is also a member of Everyday Health’s Wellness Advisory Board, says that most people can’t focus on a task for longer than 90 minutes before their mind starts to wander. Rather than get to the point of losing focus, take planned breaks before you reach that breaking point and get refreshed. “Pay attention to your own experience,” says Carter. “Most people notice a real difference after a 10-minute break.”

In a study published in 2018 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that informal “microbreaks” of just a few minutes throughout the day led to improved mood and job performance — provided that workers spent this time doing something relaxing, social, or mentally engaging. No benefit was seen, however, from taking a snack break — which suggests that at least some of the benefit from breaks comes from doing something else with our brain, not just stopping our work.

Two activities that may be especially beneficial during breaks are physical movement such as walking, and meditation, according to Wendy Suzuki, PhD, a professor of neural science and psychology in the center for neural science at New York University in New York City and the author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life. Take a simple walk outside or try an online meditation video or a meditation app, both of which can be easily accessible on your computer or phone when you need it.

A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Occupation Health Psychology found that taking walks or doing relaxation exercises during work breaks offered different benefits. While both activities led to better concentration in the afternoon, people reported greater enjoyment from taking a walk. But they tended to report less strain and fatigue in the afternoon if they had done a relaxation exercise.

All of us, in theory, take time off from our jobs during the week — at the end of our workday, and on our days off. But the value of this time off depends, in part, on how well we can separate ourselves from our work.

“Mentally disengaging from work — not ruminating about work, not taking phone calls or checking emails — is strongly related to indicators of well-being,” says Fritz. Those indicators include greater job and life satisfaction, less reported stress and burnout, and fewer sleep problems and general health complaints like back pain and headaches, according to the American Psychological Association.

Your ability to do this, though, likely depends on whether the norms of your workplace support fully detaching after work and on days off, as well as on your ability to let go of work.

If this isn’t easy for you, some new boundaries may help, like an automatic “out of office” reply for your work email, and a personal rule that you don't check it after a certain time, Fritz says. You may also benefit from exercises to develop mindfulness, so that both at work and at home, you’re fully engaged in the present moment.

If you’re working from home, setting boundaries and detaching from work may be more difficult. Goldman recommends trying to physically separate yourself from your work environment as much as possible when you’re not working, and developing routines that mimic a more conventional office job.

She also recommends a transition period between your work and family or home time, similar to a commute, both before and after work, she suggests. “Take a break for yourself — practice deep breathing or meditation, or go on a walk.”

Fritz notes that a wide variety of activities outside of work can help you mentally disengage. “For some people it’s meeting up with friends to play soccer, for others it’s visiting a museum or another cultural experience,” she says. “You can find an activity that fits you best, and fits the timeframe that you have available.”

Even if you like your work, and enjoy thinking about work-related tasks after hours, try not to do this too close to your bedtime. ‘Before you sleep, you have to rest,” says Carter. “Just taking time off every day at the end of the day can improve your sleep quality and quantity, and that can improve both your physical and your mental health.”

You can use this time for meditation, light reading, or conversation with your partner or family — just avoid anything that requires problem solving or is otherwise mentally taxing, or that causes stress.

Vacations or extended breaks from work aren't just an indulgence — they may be critical to your long-term health and well-being. A large body of research shows that vacations are linked to better health outcomes, like lower rates of heart disease; reduced stress, depression, and anxiety; improved productivity; and overall higher life satisfaction, according to the American Psychological Association.

One study found that among women living in a rural area in central Wisconsin, compared with those who took vacations twice or more per year, women who took vacation only once every two years were 92 percent more likely to have depression, and women who took vacation only once every six years were 97 percent more likely to have depression.

Other research found that even a short vacation lasting four to five days positively affected self-reported health and wellness after participants returned home — especially when people were more relaxed and detached from work, spent more time talking with their partner, enjoyed vacation activities, and had fewer negative incidents during the vacation. Working during the vacation was linked to worse health and wellness after returning home.

And a study published in August 2020 in the journal Psychology & Health found that in the weeks leading up to a planned vacation, the observed link between stress and an increased heart rate got smaller — in fact, stress caused less of an increase in heart rate as the vacation got closer. The data suggests that even looking forward to a vacation may have a positive effect on cardiovascular health and dampen the harmful effects of stress.

“If you take a truly restful vacation, the benefits can last not just weeks but months,” says Carter.

While most research has focused on vacations involving trips, she says, you may be able to realize some of the same benefits even if you stay home during your time off. “Think about the healthy comfort items that would come with a vacation, and give yourself permission to have those,” Carter advises. “Sit in your backyard and read something enjoyable, or just get outside and expose yourself to nature.”

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Whether you’re traveling or staying home during your time off, Dr. Suzuki recommends trying different things to keep your mind active. “Engaging your brain in a new way — that is fantastic for your brain.”

This could mean taking up a short-term project or a long-term hobby, she says, or learning about the history, culture, or nature in your area — or halfway around the world.

Remember that a vacation will be most beneficial if you’re not burnt out when it begins. “There’s a difference between needing it and wanting it,” says Goldman. When people absolutely need a vacation to recover, she says, “It typically takes a few days before they clear their head and are in vacation mode. Whereas if you don’t necessarily need it, you can be more present right away and really enjoy the benefits of time off.”

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