Perfect time out? When holiday is (not) really restful

Holidays can be spent in various ways but employees are not always able to escape from stressful daily work. Research studies show how holidays should be designed to enable recovery effects.

Like every summer the approaching holiday season is the most popular topic in the lunch break. The sporty colleague talks about her plans to go hiking including mountain biking in the Alps while an other colleague is looking forward to his all-inclusive holidays with cocktails at the swimming pool. But why do we need holidays at all? In recovery research Meijman & Mulder’s (1998) Effort-Recovery-Theory provides an answer describing the cycle of effort and recovery which employees are exposed to in their job.

The fundamental idea is that demanding and stressful job situations come along with decreasing work performance and dropping efficiency. This negatively affects health and wellbeing of employees. When demands on employees exceed a person’s capacity they experience an overload that is expressed in physical and psychological stress reactions. Recovery can take place when a person is no longer confronted with those demands. A periodic and long-lasting break from work is crucial to sustainably maintain an employee’s health and their ability to perform in the long run. For good reason it is often discussed in German employment tribunals whether holiday time can be compensated by money because it is actually intended to be recreational.

Acclimatisation takes time

However, it is important to consider vacation not only as the absense of work load (Eden, 2001) but to take a closer look at how it should ideally be designed to offer rest. Different studies have investigated the question whether holidays can deliver any recovery effect at all and how it should be created to maximize the results. The research group around Jessica De Bloom has dealt with this topic in various studies. A meta-analysis regarding holiday effects some years ago showed that holidays can certainly have a positive even though rather small effect on health and wellbeing if measured and compared shortly before and directly after holidays (De Bloom, Kompier, Geurts, De Weerth, Taris & Sonnentag, 2009).

A more recent publication also working on these effects took a closer look at recovery effects that occur during holidays (De Bloom, Geurts & Kompier, 2013). Focusing on long-lasting summer holidays (average duration: 23 days) they frequently interviewed 54 persons concerning topics such as health and wellbeing (health status, fatigue, mood, stress and energy level) as well as activities and experiences during their vacation. They distinguished between sportive, social and passive activities. Results showed that health and wellbeing quickly rose at the beginning of the holidays and reached their peak normally around the 8th day of vacation. This is explainable due to the fact that people need some time to let go of stressful daily work and to acclimatise to their new holiday environment.

The recovery effect quickly fades away

The researcher noted a remarkable enhancement of health and wellbeing during the long vacation time (effect size Cohen’s d = 0.73). Employees could definitely use their holidays to recover from work load. However, results also showed that the recovery effect vanished during the first days after returning back to work – health and wellbeing went back to the intinal level within the first week of working.

With regard to holiday activities the researchers worked out that passive activities such as reading or relaxing at the beach greatly contribute to enhanced wellbeing. It was found that this happens especially whenever holidaymakers experience activities as relaxing, delightful and pleasant.

According to the researchers the experienced autonomy concerning activities plays an important role: if holidaymakers are able to decide on their own how to spend their time health and wellbeing clearly increase. Not to forget the factor sleep: the longer and better holidaymakers sleep in their free time, the greater the improvement of health and wellbeing. Both, during vacation and up to two weeks afterwards.It is also important to know that working during vacation has a negative influence on health and wellbeing after returning back to work (De Bloom et al., 2012). Summarized, it can be stated that health and wellbeing considerably improve during summer vacation even though the positive effect doesn’t last very long. Relaxation, self-determination and pleasant experiences can boost the holiday effect even more.