Some critical research about … vacations

OK, I know. Some of you are already shaking your head. Do we really need university types to devote their time to vacation research? Well, as it turns out, I think we do.

For weeks I have been sitting in my UNH office, all alone because my colleagues have long ago fled to exotic places for the summer. So while I ground out the latest version of a grant proposal, I started wondering if I was doing myself some harm by letting my vacation days accumulate.

Actually, as it turns out, the effects of taking a vacation on work productivity and family life is just now an emerging field of research. The idea of taking a vacation grew out of the religious notion of Sabbath, or having a day for rest, religion and renewal. It really wasn’t until the past century that vacations became an institutional phenomenon for the American worker.

Other cultures far surpass us in vacation time. In most European countries, five weeks of vacation is standard, and European workers are much more likely to take all of their vacation time.

In addition, there are significant differences in vacation time usage between genders. One only has to live with my wife to know that, but the research confirms it. Women are much more likely than men to use all of their vacation days each year. However, when one looks at why women use more vacation time, it comes down to a critical difference. They often use their vacation time for family caregiving, while men are less likely to feel comfortable doing so.

Interestingly, the health benefits of vacation, though often touted, are more of a mixed bag. Physical indications of stress, including anxiety, heart disease and other symptoms, reportedly go down during a vacation. However — and this is a big however — those symptoms reappear directly after an employee returns to work, often at heightened levels.

Post-vacation blues

Some studies also have indicated that post-vacation domestic problems also include what is called the “fade-out” effect. In other words, your vacation is great for you and your partner and you and your kids while it lasts, but the positive effects may quickly wear off and become worse after a vacation.

How does one keep the post-vacation blues from affecting your physical and emotional health? Well, the research is pretty clear about that also. Here’s a quick synopsis of my findings:

• Planning is everything. Although spontaneity can drive your most creative work, it is careful planning that will insure a restful vacation re-entry. Before you leave, make sure you know who has got your back, who will field nasty little problems that come up and will ensure that your clients, your colleagues and your bosses will be well taken care of.

• While away, stay away. Don’t check your phone calls or e-mail. Don’t stop by the office. Don’t make contact with work folks. Immerse yourself in family, fun, relaxation and the rest of your life outside of work. Don’t try to be in two places at once, or you won’t be anywhere at all.

• Phase in your re-entry. When you return to work, don’t try to fix everything at once. Take the fact that things happened while you were gone as an indication of being missed, not as a reflection on your performance. Let your supervisor know that you may be a bit slow to catch up because you want to do it right.

• Talk about your vacation. One way to avoid the post-vacation blues is to let that sweet feeling linger. Bring those Hawaiian reggae CDs you brought back in with you. Wear that hat you bought in the lobby of the Grand Ole Opry hotel around your office. Sit down with your family and pull out the vacation photos and have a good laugh together.

• Start thinking about your next getaway. Part of living a balanced life is using the tools you are given. You have those vacation days for a reason. You earned them — use them. Some research even indicates that productivity among workers goes up right before vacations and holidays.

So if you don’t see my column next month, just figure that I finally learned how to take some of my own advice. I think I’ll start planning right now. I learned that from the research.

Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension and teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008 or