It was our third day in Mount Martha, and I was on edge. Here I was in a sleepy beach-side town spending a week with family between the holidays, and I couldn’t just relax. All I wanted to do was turn my brain off for a little while after a busy couple of months at work – but I couldn’t find the switch.
I assumed that once I was in the safe space of vacation time, everything would take care of itself. The increasingly popular refrain these days is that we (Americans in particular) are burning ourselves out by not slowing down. We are told to put down our phones, to take at least the little bit of vacation we get, and just generally to "unplug." These are all important reminders, but what if they are missing a more fundamental need? What if we have forgotten how to rest?
Rest is not something we tend to think of as a skill – after all, it doesn't take the most talented person in the world to plop down on a comfortable couch. Yet as Wayne Muller says in Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, "[Rest] is more than the absence of work." In fact, when it comes to recovering from the stressors of work, rest is only one of the tools we have at our disposal.
Sabine Sonnentag is a leading researcher on the the question of how we use our nights, weekends, and vacations to recover from the strains of our jobs. The good news is that a growing body of research supports our intuitive belief that getting away from work can help prevent burn-out and improve other aspects of employee well-being. The bad news is that those gains are not automatic. What Sonnentag and her colleagues have found through more than a decade's worth of studies is that when it comes to getting the benefits of time off, how often and how long are less important than how you use it.
For example, in a 2006 study with Charlotte Fritz, Sonnentag found that university employees who reported high levels of "negative work reflection" (i.e., thinking about the parts of your job you don't like) or "non-work hassles" (e.g., arguing with your partner, dealing with a broken down car, etc.) during their vacations were _even more exhausted_ when they came back to work. In fact, they were still worn down two weeks later when they found themselves having to put in more effort just to keep up with their jobs. This "fadeout effect," where the boost a vacation offers for an employee's well-being begins to disappear within days or weeks of returning to work, was identified more than 15 years ago and has shown up in multiple studies since. In other words, the good you gained from that Vegas vacation might as well have stayed in Vegas.
In the weeks leading up to our family holiday, I had done everything I thought I was supposed to do. I cleared the time off with my clients and supervisors. I didn't just set out-of-office messages – for days, I had been finding increasingly clever ways to drop the trip into every conversation with someone who might even think about trying to contact me. I even made sure each of my projects was either done or at a safe place to pause. My time off was like a well-fortified city, with no roads in for work to invade.
As I was quickly learning and as research is beginning to show, however, that was only a first step. We need to be much smarter about what we actually do when we manage to get away from the office. Instead of simply "switching off," we need to learn how to switch among a variety of modes:
- Non-Work Mode: First, no matter how blurred the lines become between our professional and personal lives, we need to be able to cut work off sometimes. More than just stopping communication or going somewhere different, though, the key is to actually get our minds off of our jobs. Sonnentag and her colleagues call this "psychological detachment," and our differing abilities to do so helps to explain why some people come back from vacation rested and restored, while others are just as stressed as the day they left. Of course, that doesn't mean we can never think about work when we are off the job. In fact, it can be a helpful time to reflect on what's working or to take stock of what might be coming next. But when our goal is to restore our depleted personal resources, it is probably time for a mental break.
- Relaxation Mode: If the first step to a successful break is to get our minds off of work, the question then becomes, "What do we do next?" One option is to relax, which is where my own vacation was falling short. Despite the lack of work, I was still in go-go-go mode, wondering constantly what activity we could get up to next. I was trying to burn off energy rather than bring it back down systematically. I eventually found success by settling into a good memoir and taking meandering walks with the family through the nearby trails. Similarly, in a study of 166 public administrators, Sonnentag and her colleagues found that those who relaxed at night reported greater serenity the next morning, even controlling for how well they slept.
- Learning Mode: For those with more adventurous or at least active aspirations, there is another way to make the most of our off-the-job time. "Mastery experiences" are things we do outside of work that challenge us just enough to give us an opportunity to learn, grow, and feel a little bit more competent along the way. Sports and exercise are common examples, as are hobbies and other ways of honing a craft. For me in Mount Martha, it was some time to write just for the joy of it.
- Social Mode: Christopher Peterson once summed up the findings of more than a decade's worth of research on the good life in just three words, "Other people matter." Connecting with others can be a huge boon for our happiness; and while work can certainly afford ample opportunities for high-quality connections, down time offers the opportunity for what Sonnentag and Fritz call "community experiences." By investing time in our friends, family, and neighbors, we strengthen the very support network that we so often rely on when work gets tough.
- Helping Mode: Finally, there is the option of making your invaluable personal time not about you, but about someone else. In a study with Eva Mojza, Christian Lorenz, and Carmen Binnewies, Sonnentag found that volunteering outside of work can be an effective path to both community experiences and mastery experiences. So, in the process of providing for others, you could very well be providing more resources for yourself.
The tide seems to be shifting in our shared cultural narrative, such that working longer and harder is no longer seen as the only path to success. Even Goldman Sachs is getting into the leisure game by mandating at least one day off for their junior analysts. It's a policy that certainly seems headed in the right direction. But for a group of workers who may find themselves like I found myself early in my week at the beach – unsure of what to do with themselves on a suddenly idle Saturday – it may not be nearly enough.
Reb Rebele, MAPP, works with organizations and individuals trying to understand and apply research that can help improve the design of work and life. You can find him on Twitter @rebrebele or LinkedIn.