On the Effects of Vacations

Random Beach
Random Beach

You can count on psychologists to research the most common sense phenomena and come up with interesting (although not surprising) findings.

This week, I want to talk a bit about burnout. Burnout in mechanics is the complete exhaustion of fuel due to intensive use. In people, burnout is really the same: it’s the state of emotional exhaustion that comes after a long exposure to high levels of work-related stress. This term describes people who have lost interest in their job, and show high levels of cynicism and low levels of productivity because they have, quite literally, burnt out.

It has been theorized that a vacation can prevent burnout in the sense that it pauses the “fuel burning”, leaving more resources for the person to cope with his/her high-stress job. Interestingly, I couldn’t find any research about burnout that is not work-related. I would expect, for instance, that working moms might have a higher burnout rate because they are “working two shifts” – one at the office and another at home. In any case, vacation should help the burnout and stress, if only because you are taking a week off from these things. Common sense, right?

In a great study that actually used both a pre- and post-questionnaire and a control group (no other study used a control group, leaving much to be desired), the researchers found that a vacation decreased both job-related stress and burnout when measured immediately after returning from the vacation. That is, the people who went on vacation showed lower levels of stress and burnout after they returned. Shocking, I know.

Here’s the interesting finding, though. The authors also got the participants to fill in the questionnaires about 3 weeks after the “vacation” group returned. Turns out that 3 weeks later the stress levels of the people who took a vacation went back up to be equivalent to those who didn’t take a vacation. Burnout levels, however, remained low for the people who went on vacation even after 3 weeks, despite the high levels of stress. So the vacation helps to alleviate stress only temporarily, but it helps with the burnout for a longer stretch of time.

That said, the sample for this study consisted mostly of men (about 90% of the sample were men). This is a significant weakness of the study, especially that it is documented that women and men use resources differently. For example, in a study of flexible working schedule it was found that combining two flexible schedule programs (flextime and compressed workweek) was associated with less stress for men, but with more stress for women. It was hypothesized that women use the flexible schedule to fit more into their time, hence creating more demands.

In any case, it seems that research is in agreement with common sense on this one: a vacation would lower your stress in the short term, and also help with burnout for at least a little while. And with that in mind, please note that next week there won’t be a post, as we are off to Jamaica with the kids for a week. I’ll let you know when I get back if it is helping my stress levels 🙂

What was your favourite vacation? Why do you think it was so good?

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