I accidentally took a mental health break from work. Here’s what I learned.

Throughout my working career, I’ve always considered a mental health break from work to be “the weekend”.

Work really hard for 5 days, rest, relax and recharge for 2. Rinse and repeat.

Even when considering typical vacations (weekends at the beach, a week abroad, etc.), I tended to view those as more “opportunities for new activity” rather than a mental health vacation.

All of that has held true for the last decade, until a more recent, and oddly enough my longest ever, vacation (more accurately my Honeymoon). My wife and I had dreamed of going to Greece for quite some time (her even longer than I). We spent weeks planning our trip across the country, starting in Athens, moving on to Mykonos and finishing our trip up on the beautiful island of Santorini.

Two weeks. That’s how long this journey would last. And not just 2 “work weeks” of 10 days, but rather the bookend weekends surrounding, making the entire time away from the office 16 full days. Now this was easily the longest I’d ever been away from work, and it’s even more notable that my company/position has grown a solid 40% since the last time I took a long vacation (9 total days, but only 5 work days).

Now obviously, along with that growth comes more responsibility, more members of the team, and depending on the day, more stress. I wouldn’t consider myself a stressed person and often even the most stressful of stretches at work only last a few days. For this, I count myself lucky. Despite my luck, however, there are thousands of individuals every single day that deal with chronic stress in life and work, and for these individuals, let me give you a piece of advice. Take a vacation, however long you can, and let me offer you some guidelines to follow.

The 4 rules for a successful mental health break from work

  1. Remove work applications from your phone. Whatever connection you have to the office on your computer (if you bring it) but more importantly your phone, uninstall it. Don’t just turn off the push notifications and put your app in a folder.. uninstall it completely. Get rid of it, hide it, burry it. Take this blissful opportunity to completely remove yourself from the world where you currently spend 1/3 of your daily life, enjoy the silence.
  2. Make an itinerary (even if it’s a loose one). Back in 2009, Joudrey and Wallace, Canadian researchers conducted a study with almost 900 lawyers and concluded that planning and participating in activities (such as golf, hiking, etc!) while on vacation did more to help alleviate job related stress when compared to being sedentary. Plus, the less thinking you have to do while you’re actually on vacation, the better.
  3. Be ok with changing your plans. A vacation, especially one designed to be a mental health vacation, shouldn’t bring with it a schedule so stringent that it in and of itself, causes stress. What you read about your destination on trip advisor while planning the trip, may differ from your actual experiences while there. That’s ok. If you enjoy a particular place, restaurant, show, etc. It’s ok to hang out there longer than expected (and even more than once!). Find what you enjoy doing, and do more of it! Even if it goes against your itinerary.
  4. Do not reengage with work until you’re home and unpacked. Regardless of how long you’re planning on being away from home, it’s natural on your trip home to begin mentally “getting back in the swing of things”. You start thinking about your upcoming week(s) ahead, how many emails could be in your inbox (no sense wondering.. it’ll be a lot), what horrible amazing things could have happened while you were gone, etc. The problem lies when you begin moving heavily into “work mode” before you’re really done with vacation. Do yourself a favor and make it a priority when you return home to take care of a few things before diving back in. Unpack your suitcases, do your laundry, prep your meals, and generally try to take care of anything that would cause you more undo stress during your return to work if not completed. Then, and only then, can you reinstall everything you deleted from tip #1.

The psychological benefits of vacation

Chronic stress is more than a mental health issue. It has physical effects too. Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D., a psychologist, author, and professor, suggests that chronic stress can take a significant toll on a body’s ability to maintain it’s most vital functions, as well as resist infection and injury. It’s suggested that those who suffer from chronic stress are more commonly tired and likely to become ill. Chronic stress can cause complications with artery health, sleep, food digestion, and even negative alterations of your cells genetic material.

All of these complications are in addition to the impact seen on the mentality of such an individual. Those suffering from chronic stress are generally more depressed, anxious and irritable when compared to their less stressed counterparts.

Whether you consider your vacations to be a mental health break from work, a mental health vacation, or simply “time away from it all”, you should know that vacations serve an integral role in breaking the stress cycle. So often we can return from a successful vacation feeling rejuvenated, calm and even eager to get back to work and tackle all there is waiting for you.

We’re seeing the desire and approval of “taking a mental health day” become more commonplace in our environment today, though it’s by no means a standard practice.

Should you take time off work for mental health?

This question contains a unique answer for everyone asking. With everyone’s situation being different, it would be unwise of me to suggest a blanket answer.

What I can say is this: My honeymoon turned out to be the best accidental mental health vacation that I never knew I needed. 

I had no intention of taking a mental health break from work, instead I had every intention of taking a honeymoon with my beautiful wife Lori. In my desire for the two of us to spend as much time in the present as possible, I stumbled upon the ideas of uninstalling work apps from my phone, and committing to not thinking about it until I returned home (and did my laundry of course), etc.

Throughout the trip, the effects of those actions became very clear, not only did we have an amazing time with each other, we were able to appropriately separate ourselves from the hustle and bustle of every day life and give our minds a chance to relax and recharge.

My return to work afterwards was not easy. But it’s never easy to catch up on 10 full work days of missed activity. The difference this time around though, was the level of enthusiasm I carried with me in the door every day of my first week back. Yes, there was a lot to do, yes, there was a lot I had missed, but man, was I excited to be back.

 

Sources:

Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D., (2010) “The importance of vacations to our physical and mental health”

Joudrey, A.D. & Wallace, J.E. (2009). Leisure as a coping resource: A test of the job demand-control-support model. Human Relations, 62, 195-217.

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