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:
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.