by Jessica de Bloom
The end of the year is approaching and most of us are eager to start the Christmas holiday in order to recover from busy working weeks. Deadlines at work, Christmas shopping and numerous “pikkujoulut” may leave one desperate for some rest and relaxation. We may want to believe that Christmas holidays do wonders, making us return to work with new energy and inspiration. But is this thought actually grounded in scientific evidence? Or can we compare the idea to children’s belief in Santa Claus?
According to research, there are two mechanism that explain why vacations can positively affect people’s well-being and health: an active and a passive mechanism (Geurts & Sonnentag, 2006; De Bloom, 2012). According to the effort-recovery model (Meijman & Mulder, 1998) and the allostatic load theory (McEwen, 1998), a vacation from work reflects a direct release from daily exposure to job demands.
Removal of the demands previously put on an individual’s psychobiological systems is a necessary prerequisite for recovery to occur (Sonnentag, 2001). In other words, a holiday is salutary, because we do not have to work or experience common stressors at work, such as high work load, time pressure or minor conflicts of interests with colleagues, clients or supervisors.
But holidays do much more than removing strain. According to the conservation of resources theory (Hobfoll & Shirom, 2001), self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and broaden- and -build theory (Fredrickson, 2001), humans are ‘masters of their own fate’ who can actively and freely pursue their own interests and intentionally strive for desirable outcomes. Vacations provide working people with an opportunity to build and maintain social relationships, and engage in pleasant activities of their own choice.
So much about theory. How about practice?
In general, empirical research has shown that vacations positively affect employee health and well-being (De Bloom, 2009). For instance, diverse studies following employees before, during and after different types of vacations demonstrated that levels of self-reported happiness, life satisfaction, health, mood and energy improve during holidays. At the same time, levels of tension, fatigue and stress hormone secretion decrease (e.g., Chen & Petrick, 2013; Etzion, 2003; Fritz & Sonnentag, 2006; Gretz & Stick, 1993; Toda et al., 2004).
In addition, couples report higher quality conversations with each other and families feel that their communication and family cohesion improves (Durko & Petrick, 2015; Lehto, Lin, Chen & Choi, 2012). However, these effects are generally short-lived and often fade out within the first week after returning to work (De Bloom et al., 2009).
Given what we have said above, some people may wonder whether it makes sense to take vacations if the effects disappear so rapidly. Should we stop sleeping, because we will get tired again? Should we stop eating, because we get hungry again? You get the point.
There is, however, scientific evidence that not taking regular vacations is harmful to your health. For instance, two epidemiological studies following healthy people for several years found that not taking vacations for a prolonged period of time is associated with an enhanced risk to suffer from cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks and even die prematurely (Eaker, Pinsky & Castelli, 1992; Gump & Matthews, 2000).
In addition, studies have shown that recovered workers are more eager to engage in organizational citizenship behavior (i.e., behaviors that benefit an organization such as helping co-workers or volunteering for additional tasks; e.g., Binnewies, Sonnentag & Mojza, 2009). Furthermore, an experimental study using an idea generation task before and after a vacation period suggests that vacations increase cognitive flexibility (De Bloom et al., 2014). Consequently, employees who return to work after a vacation are more likely to consider different aspects of a problem and avoid relying on conventional ideas and routine solutions.
With this in mind, enjoy your Christmas holiday, good company and delicious food! Speaking about food and holidays: it is normal to return to work after the holiday with a few pounds extra on your hips (Roberts & Mayer, 2000).
I’m looking forward to seeing you after the holidays relaxed, with new, creative ideas in mind.
Merry Christmas and a “guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr” (which literally translates into: a good glide into the next year) as we say in German!