Holiday versus work: how do you disconnect from your job?

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04 August 2022 |

How long should a holiday last in order to completely destress and disconnect from your work? How bad is it for your mental health if you sit on the beach reading your work mails rather than a thriller? Professor Els Clays teaches in the department of Public Health and Primary Care and is investigating the impact of work-related stress on human health.

Summer time is holiday time for many people. How important is it to take a holiday?

“Holiday helps to reduce our stress. There is absolutely no doubt about its soothing impact on burn-out symptoms, such as tension, fatigue or exhaustion. We need holiday to recover from the demands placed on us by work. Yet recovery is only achieved when you manage to fully disconnect your mind.”

So it’s not a good idea to check your work mails during the holiday?

“The best plan is to leave them alone. It is also worth turning off your work telephone. Mental disengagement on holiday is not enough; ideally, you should search for some relaxing activities too. Total disconnection and relaxation are easier to achieve on holiday than during a day off or at the weekend.”

How long should a holiday last in order to destress entirely?

“Very little scientific research exists on this topic, although there is general consensus that mental disconnection is more successful when a holiday lasts for at least one week. Other than that, there appears to be little difference between one, two or three weeks. The impact of stress reduction is not necessarily greater the longer you are on holiday. After all, if you spend the whole time worrying about your work or thinking about your job you can never properly disconnect. If you have a lot of worries outside your work, that does not help with your relaxation either.”

“We should not allow our recuperation to depend on that one big annual summer holiday”

Rather than taking four weeks in a row once a year, is it more sensible to take a week here and there throughout the year?

“It’s rather too quick to reach that conclusion, but it is true that we should not restrict our recovery and recuperation to one big annual summer holiday. In fact, you should disconnect properly every evening after work.”

So, the ‘right to disconnection’, in other words a lack of obligation to react to work mails and calls after office hours, is an excellent measure?

“Absolutely. After all, it’s difficult to disconnect if you also continue to keep an eye on your mails in the evening, after a day at work. We must learn to deal with stress and to set limits throughout the working week.

Recently, we monitored academics over a period of fifteen working days. Using an app on their smartphone we asked them questions at different times during their working day. We asked how much work they had on, whether they received social support and how, about their work commitment, but also about their recovery and recuperation in the evening. We established that people find it harder to disconnect after a busy day, certainly when this is combined with little autonomy.”

Els Clays

On top of that there is the fact that we are all pretty much permanently online.

“Attention must certainly be paid to the consequences of digitalisation. Working from home due to corona has disrupted the dividing line between work and private life for many people. Although personally I found that working from home also had positive benefits. I felt that I was in control and could do things my own way.”

We take holiday to relax. But what is ‘relaxing’ exactly? Lying all day in a hammock doing nothing?

“There is nothing wrong with a rest, but it is also a good idea to learn new skills in your free time. Because this gives you lots of energy. Of course, that is assuming that your free time does not involve swapping a stressful work environment with a stressful home environment. What’s important is that you can choose your own leisure activities. Otherwise it becomes very hard to recuperate.

If you have a passive office job it is not a bad idea to seek out an active holiday. For those who have accumulated a chronic lack of sleep it can also be beneficial simply to catch up on some sleep. The things that give us energy differ from person to person. For some people an adventurous holiday is perfect, while for others this can simply add to the stress. What’s important is that you choose holiday activities that give you energy.”

Some people suffer from withdrawal symptoms during the first days of their holiday, or even every weekend: they end up in bed with a tension headache.

“For those who experience excessive stress at work it is always difficult to adjust to days of  leisure. If you begin your holiday all tense with stress it will take longer to relax and become calm. Once you set to work again after your holiday the beneficial after effects of the holiday disappear more quickly than with other people. Because then you return to a job where the strain of work simply accumulated during your absence.

For many people the holiday planning weeks beforehand are already beneficial. Only that applies significantly less to those in a work environment with extreme time pressure and a poor social climate. A decent workplace allows you to recuperate sufficiently during your holiday. Then, when you are well rested, you feel more involved in your work again after the holiday.”

What for you is the ideal holiday?

“Ten days lying on a beach and doing nothing, that’s not for me! (laughs) This summer we are going on a cycling holiday with the family. Of course, there will certainly be the odd day of lazing around.”

Els Clays 1

Professor Els Clays is a senior lecturer in the Department of Public Health and Primary Care and studies the impact of work-related stress on our health. "For years, I have been fascinated by research into well-being at work. For example, I was involved in many studies on the psychosocial work environment - with factors such as stress, quality of leadership and the climate of social support in organisations - and its impact on the health and well-being of employees."

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