Vacations give us time away from work, but not everyone maximizes their time-off in terms of doing things they enjoy. The staycation, or staying at home and not doing much of anything during several days or weeks off, has become more and more popular in recent years. And some vacations aren’t that much fun, like when you feel obligated to spend time with relatives that always push your buttons.
But the quality of your vacation can affect your productivity.
I wrote last week about how a shitty weekend can ruin your productivity come Monday and even Tuesday morning (Fritz and Sonnentag, 2005).
Is it the same with vacations?
According to one study (Westman, 1997), vacation helps alleviate burnout, and those who were satisfied with their vacations experienced greater results. If you’re less burned out, you’re able to be more productive. Women in the study also experienced greater effects than men. But there is a catch. These same groups returned to their pre-vacation burned out selves faster than people who were not satisfied with their time off. Weird, right?
The Vacation Effect
The study surveyed 76 office workers in an administrative department who all had the same two weeks off during an annual company closing. The study took place in Israel; I’m painfully aware that almost no companies in the U.S. shut down for two weeks at a time.
The researchers asked employees to answer questions about how burned out they felt by their jobs before, during, and after their vacations. More precisely, the measurements were taken:
- 6 weeks before vacation,
- 3 days before vacation,
- at the mid-point of their vacation,
- 3 days after vacation, and
- 3 weeks after vacation.
Pretty much across the board, burnout declined during vacation. Yay! But three weeks after vacation, most people were back to their normal burned out selves. Boo.
Let’s get to the interesting bit: Three days after and three weeks after vacation, people who were satisfied with their vacations experienced greater relief, but they also experienced quicker fade-out. The same held true, by and large, for women versus men. In other words, they all returned to the status quo faster than people who were unsatisfied with their vacations.
Puzzling, right? It’s hard to know what to make of that last finding. If you take a great vacation, you’ll return to work much more refreshed than if you had a so-so vacation (or a shitty one), but the effects won’t last as long.
How to Hack the Vacation-Burnout Effect
Here’s a possible strategy for women and people who tend to have fun during time off: Take more frequent, but shorter, vacations.
If you plan really fun adventures and get-togethers over long weekends rather than taking off two weeks at a time, you’ll get more highly productive post-vacation days throughout the year.
The return to your pre-vacation burn level could still be quick, though I haven’t seen any data on that yet. The study by Westman and Eden only looked at the two-week vacation, not shorter ones. Those could have a different effect entirely. But let’s assume for a moment that they don’t. Let’s assume that any satisfying time-off creates the same effect.
Another possible complication is that people might need a full two weeks off to really recuperate, although the study by Fritz and Sonnentag that I mentioned earlier indicates that weekend relief is similar. Right after the weekend, on Monday and Tuesday, is when you feel the real effects of the recovery.
Fritz, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2005). Recovery, health, and job performance: Effects of weekend experiences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 10, 187–199. doi:10.1037/1076-89188.8.131.52
Westman, M., & Eden, D. (1997). Effects of a respite from work on burnout: Vacation relief and fade-out. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 516–527.
Photo by jenny downing, CC.