Episode #33: Vacation Rx

Open suitcase with a variety of travel items

Toward the end of 2018, more than half of all employees were going to leave vacation time on the table at the end of the year. In fact only 23% of employees were using up all of their vacation time. And 10% weren’t using any time at all. We aren’t taking our vacations for a variety of reasons . . .  But research shows that taking time away from the stresses of work and daily life can improve our health, motivation, relationships, job performance, and perspective and give us the break we need to return to our lives and jobs refreshed and better equipped to handle whatever comes.


Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode. 

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On to this episode . . . 


Did you know that Americans are not very good at taking their vacation time? Toward the end of 2018, more than half of all employees were going to leave vacation time on the table at the end of the year. In fact only 23% of employees were using up all of their vacation time. And 10%  weren’t using any time at all. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/20/us-workers-to-forfeit-half-their-vacation-time-this-year.html

We aren’t taking our vacations for a variety of reasons . . .  because we are worried about the work that will pile up while we are gone, afraid that we might be viewed as less committed than our peers, we feel guilty for leaving other people behind, we’re afraid that things will fall apart if we aren’t there, and so on. 

But, did you also know that taking vacation is scientifically proven to be good for you?! 

A number of studies have shown that taking time away from the job can have physical and psychological health benefits. People who take vacations have lower stress, less risk of heart disease, a better outlook on life, and more motivation to achieve goals. If you still need a little convincing, here is a list of some of the additional benefits of taking time away from work:

  • Improved physical health: Stress can contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. For both men and women, the New York Times reported, taking a vacation every two years compared to every six will lessen the risk of coronary heart disease or heart attacks. In fact, the 1992 Framingham Heart Study, which tracked workers over 20 years found that "men who don't take vacations were 30% more likely to have a heart attack and for women it went up to 50%.”

  • Improved mental health: Neuroscientists have found that brain structure is altered by chronic exposure to the stress hormone cortisol, which can be a major contributing factor to anxiety and depression. Feelings of calm arise from time away from work and relieve stress, which allows the body and mind to heal in ways that it couldn't if it were still under pressure.

  • Greater well-being: According to a Gallup study, people who "always make time for regular trips" had a 68.4 score on the Gallup-Heathway's Well-Being Index, in comparison to a 51.4 Well-Being score for less frequent travelers.

  • Increased mental power: Upon returning from vacation, workers are often more focused and productive. Studies have found that chronic stress can actually modulate a part of the brain that inhibits goal-directed activity and can cause problems with memory. Time off can tune up a well-functioning brain.

  • Improved familial relationships: Spending time enjoying life with loved ones can keep relationships strong.

  • Decreased burnout: Workers who take regular time to relax are less likely to experience burnout, making them more creative and productive than their overworked, under-rested counterparts.

  • Planning alone boosts happiness: Research shows the biggest boost in happiness comes from planning the vacation. A person can feel the effects up to eight weeks before the trip!

The bottom line is, taking time away from the stresses of work and daily life can improve our health, motivation, relationships, job performance, and perspective and give us the break we need to return to our lives and jobs refreshed and better equipped to handle whatever comes. https://www.allinahealth.org/healthysetgo/thrive/importance-of-taking-vacation

[AND] That mental break doesn't just feel good. It also benefits businesses -- which is probably why even though Western European workers have more time off than the US does, generous vacation policies haven't been found to affect productivity.

Brigid Schulte, author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One has the Time" and the director of the Better Life Lab at the New America Foundation. says that all the research points in the same direction. Those who don't take time off are "sicker, less productive, stressed, and more anxious and depressed—that affects your work as well."

She says it behooves managers, CEOs and leaders to create systems that prioritize a culture of vacation. Requiring workers to take time off or including vacation planning as a part of performance reviews are two ways to make sure time off is used—all of which will benefit the bottom line.

For the individual, it might sound strange, but vacations take practice, said Schulte. "The more we take that time, the more we want it," she said. https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/why-vacations-matter/index.html# 

I can personally vouch for this statement. When I DO take vacation, which is not nearly enough, I always think to myself . . . “I should do this more often!!!” It is easy to forget how much we need to get away from our day to day work and routines.  

In the first 5 years of my professional career, I am pretty sure I only took a week-long vacation twice. I didn’t even take holidays off, much less take  full-fledged vacations. And then when I did go on vacation, I took work with me. I was well into my second career, and a good 15 years into my professional life before I took a vacation and didn’t work while I was there.

Once I had kids, I took a vacation every two years or so. Have you taken a vacation with small children? Because I took vacation so rarely, it took me several years to figure out that “vacation” with small children isn’t really relaxing or restful. Vacation with small children is simply life, in a different location, with more sand and water, and everyone off their schedules wreaking havoc in a space that hasn’t been childproofed. Even so, life in a different location with different routines and different vistas can provide space for the mind, even if you don’t get as much sleep as you would like. 

Based on my own research, I am going to guess some of you can relate to this next experience . . . it used to be that when I did go on vacation, it took me 4-5 days to wind down (usually until Wednesday) and by Friday, I would start winding back up again. So, if you take one week of vacation, minus the wind down and wind up time, I experienced approximately 1 day of planned vacation per year. The punch line is this: THAT IS NOT ENOUGH TIME OFF. And weekends (assuming I took weekends of which I didn’t for many many years) don’t count.

Ironically perhaps, as an entrepreneur, I find myself even less likely to take “vacation” days. There is no employee manual. No “accrued vacation” days on my paychecks. As an entrepreneur, it is easy to get sucked into all work all the time. When you are building a business and your income “seems” to have a direct relationship to your hours worked---by the way this is perception but not necessarily reality--it is easy to fall into the trap of forgetting to (or just choosing not to) take time off.

I have lived very much in survival mode for most of my life with a few moments of respite here and there. When we are in survival mode, it is difficult to find the mental space to even THINK about vacation, much less to plan and fund one. 

I want to remind you here that taking a vacation doesn’t have to mean spending a bunch of money. It can. But it certainly doesn’t have to. Taking vacation can mean staying at home, completely unplugged from work, and doing things just because you love them . . . taking naps, reading books, drinking your coffee while not on the run, staying in your pajamas all day, and so one. 

Have you planned your vacation(s) for 2020? If you haven’t, I encourage you to mark your calendar NOW. Don’t wait. Include your vacations in your annual planning, goal setting and even your New Year’s Resolutions. Create and hold space for them on your calendar. And hold them as sacred.

In the world that many of us live and work in, it can seem like there is never a “good time,” to take a vacation. So plan them anyway. Plan them like they are just as important as anything else that might fall on your “to do” list. Plan them like your health depends on periodic vacations because it is highly likely that you will be a happier, healthier, and more productive human if you take vacations (and I mean vacations that don’t include working) on a regular basis. Consider this your vacation prescription.


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I look forward to being back with you next time!