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Take a Mental Vacation This Weekend

A "vacation" mindset can increase positive feelings and decrease negative ones.

Key points

  • Many people in the U.S. struggle with work-life balance.
  • Research found that workers who were primed to live out their weekend like a mini vacation experienced more positive emotions.
  • Taking more frequent vacations from work is also associated with health benefits.

We all know that we work too much in the United States.

The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without a minimum annual leave for workers—a minimum number of paid vacation days in a year granted to employees.1.

The average American worker toiled for 1,791 hours in 2021.2 This was 428 hours more than the average worker in Denmark and 442 hours more than a worker in Germany. In 2021, we worked, on average, 184 more hours than a worker in Japan and 195 more hours than a worker in... Slovenia. I don't know about you, but these numbers surprised me. I am not sure how many hours I was expecting someone in Slovenia to work, but I sure am jealous of their work-life balance over there. All I know is that a small part of each of us likely dies inside when we take stock of these comparisons.

There is a laundry list of problems with our work culture: lack of a national paid parental leave benefit, stigma around using vacation and sick days, the systematic undervaluing and under-compensating of professions like teaching, etc. It could be easy to become bitter and cynical and... stop there, but that is not what a reader of Psychology Today is about, right? What can we do?

Treat Your Weekend Like a Vacation

A group of researchers wanted to see if prompting employees on a Friday to "treat this weekend like a vacation” would allow them to enjoy their time off more and be more emotionally and mentally refreshed upon going back to work the following Monday compared to being prompted to "treat this weekend like a regular weekend.”3 They surveyed 441 full-time employees before and after the following weekend and found that workers who were primed to live out their weekend like a mini vacation reported that they were more focused on the present moment, which translated to more positive emotions, less negative feelings, and greater satisfaction when back at work.

Takeaway: Actually behave as if your weekend is like a vacation. That means actually not working. Resist the urge to do one more thing for work, check or respond to work emails, or do work-like tasks such as chores or dealing with obligations (given any realistic constraints).

Actually Take Your Vacations

A 2000 study following middle-aged men at high risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) for nine years found that taking more frequent vacations was correlated with a reduced likelihood of dying from any cause and specifically, with a reduced risk of mortality due to CHD.4 Another study investigating the impact of taking time off showed that three days after employees took a vacation, they reported improved mood, better quality of sleep, and less physical complaints than before vacation. Interestingly, five weeks after vacation, individuals in the study still reported having less physical complaints than before their vacations.5

Be Present

When you look back on your life, will you remember the work emails you responded to or will you remember the quality time you spent with your cat, dog, friend, family, love of your life, or even yourself? Will you remember the extra tidying you did around the house or will you remember the spontaneous adventure you had around town or in nature? As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

References

1. Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, August 24). List of minimum annual leave by country. Wikipedia. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_minimum_annual_leave_by_country

2. Average annual hours actually worked per worker - OECD. OECD.Stat. (n.d.). Retrieved September 8, 2022, from https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=ANHRS

3. West, C., Mogilner, C., & DeVoe, S. E. (2021). Happiness from treating the weekend like a vacation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(3), 346-356.

4. Gump, B. B., & Matthews, K. A. (2000). Are vacations good for your health? The 9-year mortality experience after the multiple risk factor intervention trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62(5), 608-612.

5. 4. Strauss-Blasche, G., Ekmekcioglu, C., & Marktl, W. (2000). Does vacation enable recuperation? Changes in well-being associated with time away from work. Occupational medicine (Oxford, England), 50(3), 167–172. https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/50.3.167

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