How were your holidays?

I’m not really here as you’re reading this. I’m on holiday. Away from the desk. Away from the office. Away from work.

Thanks to Covid, it’s been a long time since most of us have been able to get away for a break. Almost half of employees surveyed in 2020 said they thought it was pointless to take their holiday entitlement as there was nowhere to go. The survey equates this to over 57 million days of unclaimed annual leave.

Working from home can only have exacerbated the problem. Taking time off to potter around the house or garden can be tricky if you’re in the same space as your laptop and you know you have a tonne of work piling up. And if you were furloughed, taking leave when you weren’t working may have seemed even more futile

But with much of the country and the world opening up again, taking a break in 2021 is something we all deserve.

Why it’s important to take time off

Even before the pandemic hit, it was hard for many people to persuade themselves they needed a break. But there are many health and social benefits to taking a holiday.

Working long hours is a killer

It’s not just a case of feeling more refreshed: working too hard can seriously damage your health. A report from the World Health Organisation reckoned that 745,000 people died in 2016 as a result of long working hours. Working more than 55 hours a week means you’re 35% more likely to have a stroke and 17% more likely to die from heart disease.

Holidays keep you grounded

Just moving away from the desk and changing the scenery for a week or two can have an amazing effect on the brain.

“When we travel, we’re breaking our normal routine,” says Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “That decreased familiarity is an opportunity for most people to be more fully present, to really wake up.”

You’ll sleep better, feel better and be less stressed

It’s hard to deal with work-related stress if you’re having to face it every day. Removing yourself from the activities and environments you associate with increased anxiety can be a great help. Spending just a couple of hours a week in nature has been proven to increase wellbeing. Going on holiday for a week or two is even better.

One of the reasons we lose sleep when we’re overworked is that our minds don’t have the time and space to ‘file away’ all the work-related information it has absorbed during the day before it switches off. Going on holiday helps us break the habits that stop us sleeping well – like working late or checking our emails late into the night.

Holidays make you smarter

This might seem like a long shot, but there’s plenty of evidence that giving your mind space to relax can improve your cognitive ability.

“Neuroscience is so clear, through PET scans and MRIs, that the ‘aha’ moment comes when you’re in a relaxed state of mind,” says Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: How To Work, Love and Play When No-one Has The Time.

It’s not only adults who benefit. Your kids will too. Professor Jaak Panksepp, a world-leading neuroscientist at Washington State University discovered that family holiday experiences activate systems in your and your children’s brains that trigger well-being neurochemicals including opioids, oxytocin and dopamine. He calls these “nature’s gift to us”: they reduce stress, induce warm and generous feelings and help us ‘emotionally refuel’.

When you take your child on a holiday, you are supporting their explorative urge and their capacity to play. In adulthood, this translates into the ability to play with ideas: vital to success as an entrepreneur.

And if you’re on holiday, don’t work

You may enjoy your work, but you need to take holiday time just as seriously.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review by Laura M. Giurge and Kaitlin Woolley explains why, especially at a time when many of us have more control of when and how we work.

Despite people assuming that greater flexibility in working patterns boosts motivation and increases empowerment, the opposite is often true.

“Spending weekends or holidays working undermines one of the most important factors that determines whether people persist in their work: intrinsic motivation. People feel intrinsically motivated when they engage in activities that they find interesting, enjoyable and meaningful. Our data shows that working during leisure time creates internal conflict between pursuing personal and professional goals, leading people to enjoy their work less.”

In other words, if you are in charge of what time is ‘work’ and what is ‘leisure’, make sure that the ‘work’ portion of that equation doesn’t seep through into ‘leisure’.

So whether you’re flying off to the sunshine or unpacking the family tent in Cornwall, take it seriously.

A few tips that will help:

  • Warn clients well in advance that you’ll be away
  • Tell colleagues they can only call you in an absolute emergency, if at all
  • Leave the laptop at home
  • Turn on the Out of Office
  • Mute notifications on your phone
  • Divert your calls to voicemail
  • Temporarily delete your phone’s email app if you’re brave enough – or make a rule that you’ll only check it once a day at a specified time.
  • For the truly dedicated: holiday somewhere with no WiFi or mobile signal

…and have a refreshing break!

Photo by Ethan Robertson on Unsplash


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