Vacation! That beautiful time of the year where you get to sleep as long as you want, stay up as long as you want and can finally engage in the things you don’t find the time for during busy working weeks…

While some people fill their vacations full with trips and activities, other people prefer to just sleep late and have quite passive times – equaling relaxation to “doing nothing”.

Now depending on where you are in the world and the legal conditions in the country, you might have more or less time to have vacation and time off from work. Even amongst Western industrialized nations, there is quite a discrepancy – from only 2 weeks e.g. in the US to 5 weeks in Austria.

The less time you have for vacation the more important becomes the questions:

  • For when do you schedule your vacation? and
  • How do you spend your vacation? What activities do you engage in, places do you visit, etc.?

Luckily a lot of scientists have put in the time and research grants to tell us how we can get the most relaxation out of the vacation time that we are given.

Vacations positively affect our Health & Well-Being

First of all, the good news: vacations have been shown to positively affect our physical and mental health. In a meta-analysis of previous research studies, de Bloom et al. (2009) find that “there was evidence for a small effect of vacation on health and well-being” (p. 23).

“there was evidence for a small effect of vacation on health and well-being” (p. 23)

Benefits don’t stay for long…

The bad news is (as you might have guessed…) that the vacation effects don’t stay too long. In fact, they seem to disappear within 2-4 weeks upon returning to work (see de Bloom et al 2009, p. 23).

De Bloom and colleagues deliver important further findings in 2012 where they examined especially the duration of and activities during vacation and their positive influence on health and wellness of study participants.

The Day of Ultimate Relaxation Is #…

They find “that H&W (author’s note: health and wellness) rapidly increase after the start of the holiday and seemed to peak on the eighth vacation day”. It is this finding that causes them to recommend taking holidays more frequently instead of taking one long time off, or as they put it “frequent respites may be more important to preserve well-being than the duration of one single recovery episode.” (de Bloom et al. 2012, p. 627-628)

“frequent respites may be more important to preserve well-being than the duration of one single recovery episode.”(de Bloom et al. 2012, p. 627-628)

Autonomy matters – why you shouldn’t plan it all

“What should we do on vacation?” Many couples of families battle over this question. Why not let science guide you on this one, here are some tips: de Bloom et al. find that autonomy is important, so leave every one an option to choose what they can do, as “if vacationers are able to decide how to spend their leisure time, their H&W increase” (p. 628).

It’s all about relaxation and fun

Moreover, it may not be so important what kind of activities you engage in, as long as they allow for relaxation and deriving pleasure from the activities. Along with svouring – a (learnable) ability to remember and treasure the pleasures of a holiday spent – these variables have been found to be “most strongly and consistently associated with improvements in H&W during and after vacation (de Bloom et al. 2012, p. 627).

Another important study conducted in Germany among 131 teachers also provides some important implications: Kühnel/Sonnentag (2011) at the University of Konstanz found that while vacation had positive effects on work engagement and reduction of burnout of the teachers, the effects only stayed for about a month (p. 125).

More important were the following results, for one that “job demands after vaation speed up the fade-out of beneficial effects” (p. 125), but also that those study participants who got more leisure time and realxation in the time after the vacation were able to maintain the beneficial effects.

How To Apply These Findings

1. Balance it: distribute your vacation more evenly throughout the year instead of spending it all on one 3-4 or even 5-week-getaway.
2. Do what you love: engage in only those activities during your holidays that you really and truly love. Most importantly: relax and have fun (or as scientists put it: “derive pleasure”!).
3. Leave some space: as it was found that autonomy increases the benefits on health and well-being, be sure not to plan your entire vacation full with activities but leave some space for spontaneity or last minute plans – you’ll have more autonomy in the moment.
4. Keep relaxing: while vacations are a wonderful chance to really relax, don’t neglect the daily relaation from stressful times at work. This will help you to maintain the “holiday high” for a few weeks longer upon returning.


[stextbox=”info” caption=”Sources”]

De Bloom, J., Kompier, M., Geurts, S., de WEERTH, C., Taris, T., & Sonnentag, S. (2009). Do we recover from vacation? Meta-analysis of vacation effects on health and well-being. Journal of occupational health, 51(1), 13-25.

De Bloom, J., Geurts, S. A., & Kompier, M. A. (2013). Vacation (after-) effects on employee health and well-being, and the role of vacation activities, experiences and sleep. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(2), 613-633.

Kühnel, J., & Sonnentag, S. (2011). How long do you benefit from vacation? A closer look at the fade‐out of vacation effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32(1), 125-143.