Why and How Time Off Helps

Vacations, holidays, and time off work help us recover from work. We can’t work nonstop, or we burn out. But what is happening when we take time off that allows us to “get better” in a sense so that we are renewed and able to work hard again? And what activities are actually proven to increase productivity after we do them to rejuvenate ourselves from working so hard?

Getting a sense of rejuvenation from a weekend spent relaxing or a few days on the beach is one of those things we know to be true, but we seldom question what is actually happening to our bodies and minds that makes it so.

I’ve written before about why we burn out and the generally accepted theory called Conservation of Resources (Hobfoll, 1989). In short, Conservation of Resources Theory says we have resources, and we use them to deal with the stressors of life. Many of life’s stressors are persistent and constant. Some are acute or temporary, like working. We deal with stressors by using our resources. As our resources deplete, we seek to conserve them or build them back up again.

Time off helps prevent further resource loss. Just stopping working prevents further resource loss.

But how do we build up resources again?

3 Ways to Recover From Work

There is some research on what it takes to rebuild resources. Eschleman et al. (2014), for example, say we recover and rebuild resources through three ways:

  1. mastery
  2. control
  3. relaxation.

There is a possible fourth way. Eschleman and his team theorized that detachment from work would lead to increased productivity (implying that after detaching from work, a worker would have rebuilt resources and returned to work slightly rejuvenated), but they didn’t have enough evidence to prove that it was true in this study. I should also point out that another team of researchers, Fritz and Sonnentag, study very similar issues, and their 2006 work supports Eschleman et al.’s more recent study.

So let’s talk about those first three.

Mastery is like taking a class or spending years writing poetry, or doing something that results in learning new skills. Doing something creative helps productivity, but mastering it is key. Developing those skills seems to what actually rebuild resources. Sometimes those skills spill over into the workplace, and sometimes not. Either way, it usually boost people’s moods to do something well and progressively get better at it. It might also help people with creative problem-solving at work, the old “thinking outside the box.” In other words, mastering a skill that’s unrelated to your job might give you a different perspective on how to solve problems at work.

Control means having agency over your leisure time. Being able to choose how you spend your free time, it turns out, is vital to recovering from work. At work, most people don’t choose how to spend their time. They have less agency. I almost think of control in this context as freedom. When we feel free outside of work, it helps us recover from work and return to work more refreshed. If a friend twists your arm into going hiking, but you really don’t enjoy the outdoors, you aren’t as likely to reap any rejuvenating benefits from it.

Relaxation is pretty straightforward. Stroll through the gardens, meditate, listen to music, and you might release some of the negative emotions related to work. Relaxation means not doing any kind of work. It entails disengaging from paid work as well as disengaging from personal responsibilities (temporarily), decision-making, and other stressors.


Eschleman, K. J., Madsen, J., Alarcon, G., & Barely, A. (2014) Benefiting from creative activity: The positive relationships between creative activity, recovery experiences, and performance-related outcomes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Fritz, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2006). Recovery, well-being, and performance-related outcomes: The role of workload and vacation experiences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 936–945. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.91.4.936

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513–524.

Image by Hannah, CC.


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