Taking time off from work to take a vacation is beneficial to people’s health, but the benefits are far from permanent, according to the American Psychological Association's Work and Well-Being Survey.

When workers return to work after a vacation, they often “feel less stressed, their mood is better, they have more energy, they’re more motivated, and they say they’re more productive and their work quality is actually better,” said David Ballard, director of APA Center for Organizational Excellence. “But for nearly two-thirds, those effects dissipate within a few days of coming back from a vacation.”

This group of nearly two-thirds breaks down into 40 percent who say the positive effects last only a few days and 24 percent who say the benefits vanish immediately upon returning to work, the survey found.

The survey found a disparity between the effects of paid vacation versus unpaid. When vacation time is unpaid, “it makes it even more difficult to get away from the office because any time away means that it’s lowering [workers’] income,” said Ballard. “But even for working Americans who do have time off, less than half said that the culture of the organization actually encourages employees to take time off.”

As a result, Ballard said some workers find themselves unable to enjoy their time off, because they cannot put the stress of work out of their minds.

“About a quarter say they worry that they’re going to miss important opportunities or information while they’re away, or that they avoid taking vacations altogether because they feel guilty when they do,” he said.

Employers have the ability to change this, according to Ballard. When employers encourage employees to take time off, it adds to the benefits of time off for employees. The survey suggests this is in the interest of employers, too, because a reduction in stress means an increase in productivity.

Helpful steps that Ballard says can be taken by organizations:

  • Helping employees plan ahead for time off
  • Developing a concrete plan for how tasks are going to be handled
  • Who’s going to cover while an employee is out
  • Establishing clear expectations about availability and responsiveness when someone’s away from work
  • Encouraging teams to coordinate

This coordination can help a company avoid having too many people taking vacation time at once, which Ballard said can cause “work spilling over into time off or overburdening those who are back at work trying to pick up the slack.”

Ballard recommended supervision of employees “to make sure [businesses] are keeping track of employees’ vacation time usage, encouraging them to take time off and supporting them in that, so that they understand work stress and reinforce the kind of actions that are going to help people manage stress effectively and recover from it so they can be at their best.”

The transition after a vacation, when an employer returns to work, is also critical because “one of the reasons why the gains dissipate so quickly is you come back to a mountain of work, you come back to all the things that have piled up while you were away, your workload is actually heavier and you’re more stressed when you come back. That eats into those benefits,” Ballard said. “So when people come back, if possible, it’s important to build in some time for people to dig out."

Ballard said a company’s culture affects how employers view vacation time. Most organizations do not explicitly discourage vacation time, but an organization should ask itself whether it discourages time off in more subtle ways, according to Ballard.

“Are they celebrating employees who never take a day off? Are they holding up as model employees those who are available and responsive 24/7? What are the messages being communicated underneath the surface?” are some questions Ballard says can help assess this.

Ballard described the vacation issue as a “shared responsibility,” one that, if handled properly, can benefit employees and employers alike.

“By investing in employees and their stress recovery, it helps their well-being, but it also ensures the effective functioning the organization or business as well,” he said.

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