When was the last time you took a day off? If you can’t remember, you are not alone—and science says that for the sake of your well-being, you should do something about it.
According to a report from Project: Time Off, Americans don’t use all—or even most—of the vacation days they earn. While we accumulate an average of 22.6 days each year, we cash in just 16.8—less than 75 percent. Even when we do get out of the office, we’re still tethered to our jobs. A poll conducted by NPR, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 30 percent of those who do take vacation do a "significant" amount of work while they’re gone, and nearly eight in 10 employees are more willing to take time off if they can check in from afar.
There is some good news, however. Vacation has an overwhelmingly positive impact on our personal and professional health, so don’t let the fear of a full inbox, upcoming deadlines, or returning to a heavy workload prevent you from taking a well-deserved break.
1. Vacation creates health and happiness.
It really is that simple—the very idea of vacation makes us happy, and the act of getting away has a very real effect on our mental and physical well-being. Subjects in multiple studies reported significant improvement in mood, energy level, relaxation, and connection with their partners along with a decrease in stress and fatigue both during and after vacation. Time off may also boost heart health and reduce depression. If you need only one reason to go on vacation, let this be it.
2. Downtime changes your brain—literally.
Some research suggests that taking a break may even change us on a molecular level. In one study, women who spent six days either on a resort vacation or at a meditation retreat showed positive changes in gene expression, including improved stress response and immune function. New environments also encourage the development of new brain pathways that increase creativity and learning, according to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and writer Carolyn Gregoire, authors of the book Wired to Create.
3. Time off makes you more engaged during time on.
You might be worried about the signal you’re sending to your boss when you request time off, but the reality is that employees who take most or all of their annual vacation days are more productive, perform better, and report higher job satisfaction than their workaholic colleagues. Those same individuals are more likely to receive promotions and pay raises.
Post-vacation productivity may also be a simple matter of time management—having limited hours requires you to be more efficient, to work at a faster pace, and to better focus on the task at hand when you are actually at your desk.
4. You can get paid to NOT work.
Many employers have a "use it or lose it" policy, which means that if you don’t take your allotted vacation days and can’t roll them over to the next calendar year, you’re giving up real money. Project: Time Off found that in 2016, Americans forfeited $66.4 billion in vacation benefits—that’s $604 of work you donated to your employer.
5. How you vacation matters.
It might be tempting to take your entire two weeks at once, but researchers believe that two or more short breaks spread throughout the year provide a better boost than a single longer vacation. Others suggest that eight days away is the sweet spot for maximum benefit to your mental and physical well-being, as longer vacations make the return to reality more challenging. More frequent breaks also help mitigate the "fade-out" of benefits that occurs after a vacation ends.
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