Business Insider Edition

Why you still need to take a vacation in lockdown — and how to make the most of it

Anna Medaris Miller , Business Insider US
 May 09, 2020, 05:03 PM
  • The novel coronavirus has led to sky-high unemployment rates. At the same time, some people, like healthcare professionals and delivery people, are working harder than ever.
  • For people who are lucky enough to have jobs and work from home, though, taking vacation time off from work can seem pointless, selfish, or self-sabotaging when it comes to job security.
  • But experts say the added stress of a global crisis and upended schedules makes taking a break from work, even just a day here and there, particularly important to your mental health and career success.
  • Here's how to make the most of your time off, according to experts and people who've done it.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Creighton Vance was looking forward to reuniting with his university friends for the Coachella music festival in April when the coronavirus derailed their plans.

The trip, organised by one friend who's continuing his medical education later in the year, would have been the first time most of the crew was back together. It was supposed to mark an important chapter in their lives.

"The most disappointing part was losing the moment to all meet up together," Vance, a 32-year-old public relations professional in Brooklyn, told Insider.

But Vance didn't let the festival's cancellation thwart all his vacation intentions. He couldn't travel, listen to live music, or hug friends, but he could take time off from work. And so he followed through with his pre-approved six days off, and eventually settled into a relaxing groove.

"After a few awkward first days, I let myself enjoy it like a vacation," he said. Vance took a hard line against reading or watching news, allowed himself beer or wine with lunch, napped in the afternoons, and took walks during times he'd otherwise be working.

His conclusion: "If you are lucky enough to have a job and the leeway to take vacation, do it!"

Mental health and workplace experts have the same advice. Taking time off from work, even just a day here and there, has always been important to prevent workplace burnout and maintain mental health, and may be especially critical given the added stress of the coronavirus.

At the same time, having nowhere to go or not much to do besides work can make taking "vacation" time seem pointless or self-sabotaging for job security. Here's how experts and other stay-cationers recommend doing it right.

The are more barriers to taking time off, but more reasons to do so

Americans have always been reluctant to take vacation days. In 2018, more than half of them didn't use all of their time off, leading to 768 million unused days country-wide, according to research from the U.S. Travel Association.

The coronavirus, in many ways, is likely to only deepen that cultural hesitance, Nancy Rothbard, a psychologist and chair of the management department at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, believes.

People simply can't go to resorts or theme parks, dine out in restaurants (in most places), or tour museums. We're also particularly cautious of strangers we'd otherwise rely on for, say, directions, keys to the Airbnb, or chatter about life as a local.

Then, there's the whole job security element. "People are afraid of losing their jobs and want to make sure they're proving themselves as a valuable asset to the organisation," Rothbard said. If your boss knows you're not going anywhere, why shouldn't you be working?

Experts can cite plenty of reasons.

Melody Wilding, a social worker who coaches people on workplace success, said many of her clients are working longer hours and harder than ever, and struggling more than usual to set boundaries. On top of it, plenty are homeschooling kids and dealing with the overall stress of living through a pandemic.

"It's the increase in workload, it's the lack of boundaries, it's just the energetic drain of having this existential uncertainty in the air all the time that's driving them toward burnout," Wilding said.

Research has linked vacation to job-related and physical health benefits

While Wilding sees some people digging more into work to try to cope with stress, the only way to recharge, from a physiological perspective, is to take a break.

"What neuroscience is showing is that we require down time in order for our bodies to go through the process of restoration," psychologist Deborah Mulhern told ABC News. "Without time and opportunity to do this, the neural connections that produce feelings of calm and peacefulness become weaker, making it actually more difficult to shift into less-stressed modes."

Research has also linked vacation time to better sleep and lower blood pressure, significantly improved reaction times, and even a longer lifespan, Insider's Hilary Brueck previously reported.

The time off is likely to benefit your career, too. While burnout is characterised by exhaustion, lower job effectiveness, and generally having a negative attitude about work, taking vacation is linked to job productivity, and, in one company report, even a better likelihood of good reviews, bonuses, and raises.

Your vacation doesn't have to be long to bring big benefits

While Vance found a six-day break gave him to time to settle into a new, slowed down routine, experts say even just a day off here and there to pursue a home project, spend time with your family, and turn off the computer can help.

"There's this pressure to always be doing something because this is time we need to capitalise on and make the most of," Wilding said. "But it's also such a relief and kind of fun to give yourself a day with full permission to do absolutely nothing guilt-free."

If staring at a wall isn't your idea of vacation, she recommended finding non-work ways to engage your brain like doing crossword puzzles and taking advantage of online escapes that allow you to virtually get away to places ranging from Egyptian tombs to live-streamed ghost tours. If you crave a nightlife scene, you can even attend a virtual rave, cocktail party, trivia night, or concert.

Sam Costa, who works for a digital health company in Philadelphia, found a single day off from screens after nailing a big presentation that took weeks of preparation was just what she needed to reset. "I woke up my usual time, made breakfast for my fiancé and I, and took a longer than usual walk," she said. "It was beautiful."

Even just setting aside time daily to do something non-work related can bring about vacation-like benefits. In fact, that's more sanity-saving than planning for a week or two away, Rothbard said, since the post-vacation "boost' seems fade after a few days -no matter how long it's been.

"Finding a hobby or activity that you can do safely, but which allows you to disengage and recover and restore is really critical," said Rothbard, who's been reading a lot more fiction these days. Prior to COVID, she added, a lot of research showed that "engaging in these types of non-work activities facilitates recovery and more resilience for re-engagement the following day."

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