The Nonvacationer’s Vacation


By Cathy Madison |

On vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine, I stood atop Cadillac Mountain in silent reverie, mesmerized by the panoramic view of Acadia National Park. Eager to share the moment, I turned to my companion — just as he called the office from his cell phone. “Any new messages for me?” he boomed.

I stalked off in a huff, but I understood. For some of us, vacations are difficult. While taking time away from work is designed to relieve stress, it can also create some of its own. First there’s the scheduling, planning and travel preparations. Then there’s the shift in daily routine and the worrying while you are away. These converging anxieties can make vacations seem like more trouble than they’re worth.

But experts agree that we shouldn’t let such worries prevent us from saying bon voyage on a regular basis. Vacations, they say, bestow emotional and physical health benefits that lead to greater life satisfaction and may even improve our work performance overall.

Outwrangle Your Resistance

If you’re a chronic nonvacationer, you’re not alone. According to the Families and Work Institute (FWI), a New York–based nonprofit research center, 79 percent of employees had access to paid leave in 2004, but 36 percent had not taken and were not planning to take their full vacations. Yet more than half reported feeling overwhelmed with their workloads.

So why do we resist vacations? One reason is guilt, says Joe Robinson, work-life consultant and author of Work to Live: A Guide to Getting a Life (Berkley Publishing Group, 2003). According to U.S. News and World Report, almost 40 percent of us work more than 50 hours a week already; should our overworked colleagues have to cover for us while we’re gone? And since employers disdain slackers, will our jobs be waiting when we return?

“We’re the only country in the industrialized world without a paid-leave law,” Robinson notes, “which is why your vacation feels about as legit as a bank heist.”

Give Yourself a Reason

If you need help legitimizing your next vacation, consider this: Regular breaks from the workplace are good insurance against burning out before your time.

FWI reports that 26 percent of workers find they are “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.” The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports that healthcare costs are up to 50 percent greater for workers with the highest levels of stress.

“Studies have shown that vacations can decrease the risk of heart attacks by 32 percent in men ages 35 to 57, and cut the risk of death in half for women ages 45 to 64,” Robinson says.

But good vacations don’t just undo stress; they may also produce happier and healthier employees. One FWI study found that among workers who take seven days or more off, 85 percent return feeling relaxed. Robinson, for one, believes that the positive feelings we bring back with us from vacation improve our performance ˙ on the job. “People who get real vacation time are healthier as a result and don’t get sick as often,” he says. They also have less resentment that they can’t ever get away. And resentment, continues Robinson, can play a significant role in absenteeism.

There’s evidence that vacations also support us in enjoying more balanced lives. After living for eight years in Australia, where Aussie workers seemed never to skip vacation, Cathy McCarty, PhD, senior research scientist and director of the Center for Human Genetics at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Wisconsin, studied psychological stress, quality of marital life and disrupted home life because of work in 1,500 U.S. women, comparing vacationers to nonvacationers.

McCarty discovered that nearly 20 percent took vacation once every six years or less. She also found that women who vacationed more experienced less tension, depression and fatigue, and enjoyed a higher level of marital satisfaction.

Embrace Change

To vacate means: “to cease to occupy or hold; to give up.” What entrenched patterns or territory will you give up? A go-go salesperson might need to kick back in one place for a while. Someone who works in a quiet cubicle, however, might forgo the hammock and seek adventure instead.

If you feel you must accomplish something during your time off, consider going on a retreat that includes classes, a sports clinic or some other type of learning experience. Or take a volunteering vacation: Clean castles in France or protect endangered loggerhead turtles in Greece (see “Virtuous Vacations” in the March 2004 archive).

“Active engagement, novelty and challenge are what lead to life satisfaction,” Robinson says. Recharging your batteries by trying something new will not only make you feel better, but also boost your creative energy when you’re back at work.

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to bring your work along. Ditch the cell phone, the laptop — and your worries about how things are going without you.

Instead of measuring your vacation in terms of output, Robinson suggests, focus on input instead. Think of vacation as refilling your well before it runs dry. Savor your opportunity to simply be in the world, with nothing required of you, and trust you’ll come back better for it.

www.thereareplaces.com — Provides travel resources, travel-planning advice and detailed descriptions of vacation destinations around the globe. — Supplies information on volunteer opportunities that last anywhere from one to 12 weeks in locales such as Brazil, Russia and Thailand. — Offers information on one- to two-week volunteer vacations in places like Peru, Cambodia, Vietnam and India. by Joel L. Widzer (Travelers’ Tales, 2004) by Rosaly Lopes (Cambridge University Press, 2005) by Mary-Lou Weisman (Algonquin Books, 2003)

To plan an ideal vacation, ponder these important questions: Are you a hopper, a plopper or a little of both? Know your needs and preferences  deciding on travel plans — particularly if you’re going with a companion or group. Consider the couple that fought about joint vacations until agreeing on terms. Sometimes they went on “vacation,” which meant plopping down in some lovely spot to read books, eschew deadlines and sleep late. Other times they went on a “trip,” which meant exploring a different culture and hopping from site to site. One vacation format was relaxed, the other was stimulating — and both relieved stress (once both parties had agreed on the action plan). What kind of recharge does your battery need? Do you long to rest and recover after finishing a monster project? Or to explore, adventure and infuse wonder into a life gone dull? Do you need a pampering spa vacation to help shed those 5 winter pounds? A fun-loving romp in wine country with pals? Low-key time with family? Get clear about your vacation intentions and you’ll have a much better idea about the type of experience that will suit you best. The best vacations mix downtime with pleasure and discovery. Decide — but don’t stress over — what you’ll do while you’re away. Avoid scheduling travel and activities so tightly that you can’t indulge sudden desires or take advantage of spontaneous opportunities. Without wiggle room, your itinerary can become as confining as your cubicle. Reduce prevacation jitters by scheduling far enough in advance that you can rearrange your workload and avoid springing any unpleasant surprises on your coworkers. Get your dates down in ink, but don’t feel that you need to plan decades in advance. For most professionals, three months’ notice for a weeklong vacation is plenty. Consider the time of year, too: If you’re traveling off-peak you’ll avoid throngs of tourists, but attractions might be closed. Go whenever it’s right for you. And if it looks like  time is ever going to be right, go anyway!

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