The Best Vacations Do More Than Just Take You Away From Work

The Best Vacations Do More Than Just Take You Away From WorkSure, you can grab a flight to the Bahamas or pack up the car for a trip into the mountains, but if only the scenery changes, you may not return feeling reenergized. In fact, a poorly planned vacation, or one without a break from normal obligations, can actually increase stress as you worry about getting behind, spending money and dealing with travel delays and hassles.

What “getting away” really looks like

The root of the word vacation comes from the concept of being “unoccupied” and also means “to leave, abandon and give out.” When you free yourself from normal demands and “abandon” typical obligations, you can set yourself up for a true refresh and reset.

Unfortunately, Americans are not great at vacationing. We often receive far fewer vacation days than our counterparts in other countries, and then don’t even use what we’re given. In 2019 (pre-pandemic), the U.S. Travel Association reported that the number of unused vacation days had climbed 9% from the prior year to a record 768 million vacation days left on the table.

How to take a vacation that works

Still, not every vacation is created equal and some help more than others. A survey conducted by Shawn Achor, author of Big Potential and The Happiness Advantage, and Michelle Gielan from the Institute of Applied Positive Research, asked more than 400 travelers to discern what makes a vacation worth the effort.

“The overarching finding was that taking time off from work can make you happier, healthier and more productive when you return, but only specific kinds of travel produce these results,” Achor wrote in Harvard Business Review. “In other words, most of the happiness gleaned from vacation is dependent upon the stress level of the vacation.” Try to integrate as many of these elements into your vacation to get maximum benefit.

  • Plan ahead. Numerous reports consistently show that people who can plan ahead are more likely to use their vacation time, take longer vacations and actually enjoy them. Planning ahead seems to counteract the stress that can be associated with travel. Trying to figure out details on the fly (such as local transportation, activities while away and any safety concerns) can significantly reduce the relaxation a vacation might provide.

In Achor’s research, 90% of respondents who had planned the details more than a month out reported having a good trip. While still in the comfort and familiarity of your own home, book accommodations, figure out local transportation at your destination, determine main activities (and book those likely to sell out), think about eating options and talk to people who have visited before. Online travel blogs often provide detailed accounts of other people’s adventures and tips on how to make the most of them.

Of course, traveling in the age of COVID requires more planning and can increase stress. If traveling abroad, carefully check requirements related to vaccination and what serves as proof, as well as any testing needs for entering another country or returning home.

Get away to get ahead

In our always-on culture, people worry that taking vacation can make them look like slackers, but research shows the opposite. In a study by Project: Time Off, researchers found that people who took more than 10 of their vacation days actually had a greater chance of receiving a raise or bonus in a three-year period than those who took fewer vacation days.

  • Actually go somewhere. Although a well-designed staycation can have benefits too (and is generally better than nothing if it’s all you can manage right now) leaving home is associated with more positive results. That could be because people describe vacations where they’ve left home, especially those to other countries, as more “meaningful.”
  • If you take email, virtual meetings and phone calls with you, chances are you will not return relaxed. “Research shows that disconnecting – especially from email – can make us significantly less stressed and more productive,” Gielan says. An underutilized tool for creating this boundary is the humble out of office (OOO) message. Gielan argues that sharing a small bit of personal information in the OOO message can even increase a sense of connection with those who receive it.

A more effective message than the standard “I’ll return August 10,” might be something like, “I’m out on vacation reconnecting with my kids while hiking in Utah. I will be excited to talk with you when I return August 10. If you have an urgent need before then, please contact my colleague . . .” Many email systems allow you to customize a response for internally- or externally-generated emails.

Entrepreneurs need a break too

For small business owners, it can be even more difficult to take a vacation — and even more important to get one. To keep stress levels low, start with a simple getaway, perhaps to a favorite place you’ve visited before for just a few days.

Many entrepreneurs find the best way to carve out vacation time is to pair it with your slowest season of the year, designate a trusted employee or colleague to keep things running in your absence, set up scheduled times to check in, and let key clients know in advance. If possible, it’s best not to shut down completely; but rather get coverage in place and then unplug and enjoy.

Achor concludes his advice with one simple admonition that I will echo here (and commit to follow myself) — go on vacation! You stand a good chance of returning more relaxed and even better positioned to advance.