We should take holidays as seriously as work, and it’s not a trivial recommendation, because giving holidays the importance they have is not as easy as it seems. And everything appears to indicate that more and more people are working during weekends and holidays.
There are different factors that explain why we work when in principle we’re exempt from it. Among others, these factors are the growth of the culture of responsibility, the prevailing notion of the ideal worker or the demand for 24/7 service to customers, suppliers and clients. But, undoubtedly, one element that has a determining weight in the equation is technology.
Our smartphones, laptops and tablets allow us to access our office, our work, with much more ease and quickness than in previous decades, bringing many benefits such as agility or decreased transport time, but also adding some other drawbacks. Among these disadvantages is the permeability between our roles.
The boundaries between personal and professional life become thinner, blurred. We can work in front of our 5-year-old son, or stop paying attention to our partner because of an email received on our smartphone, in the same way that we can lose track of what we were doing in the office because of a trivial family whatsapp. This new complexity, explained by the permeability of our roles, can become even more evident in the holiday period, where in most cases we continue receiving, reading, answering emails, and, ultimately, working.
Holidays as an essential time for “emptying”
Rest is necessary, daily and yearly. There’s evidence throughout the centuries. Even arable land itself needs to rest in order to renourish and store organic matter, a practice known as fallow land. Vacation, annual rest, has its origin in the Latin word “vacans”, participle of the verb vacare: to be free, unoccupied.
There are, obviously, jobs that by their very nature do not allow telematic access, but we refer here to all those jobs that thanks to technology can be carried out partially or totally from the usual workplace.
Therefore, vacation (vacación in Spanish, vacance in French) is the suspension of normal activities, to empty oneself of such activities, to leave tensions and anxieties behind, and to recuperate. Basically, it is a process of emptying, of disengagement, in order to achieve recovery or regeneration. In a way, it’s equivalent to daily sleep. Governments in the last century have worked to offer legislation that facilitates holidays, recovery periods, although in an unequal way. In Spain there’s a minimum of 30 calendar days or 22 working days, in Hong Kong seven, and in the United States no days by law.
Organisations have also taken, or are increasingly taking, important steps to promote a good annual rest for their employees. There are companies that offer more days than those set by law, others are beginning to offer a policy of unlimited vacation, and others are making efforts to ensure that couples coincide in their time off.
Vacations that generate resources, the best for the company and for professionals
Unlike what we may think, studies linking holidays with productivity are scarce. We’re all aware that we need days off, whether this is negative or positive for the productivity of our organizations. However, there’s a more concrete question wherein organizations have some room for manoeuvre, which is how do different vacation experiences affect our recovery processes, and consequently our well-being? Not all holidays or vacation experiences affect our recovery process in the same way, and the following study by Fritz and Sonnentag demonstrates this (Fritz & Sonnentag, 2006).
For their research, Fritz and Sonnentag conducted a longitudinal study on 221 German workers, providing different questionnaires before, during and after the holiday. The authors, based on Hobfoll’s resource conservation theory (1989), distinguished between two types of vacation experiences, those that consume resources, and those that generate resources, only the latter being the one in which the person feels recovered. Previous studies indicate that during the holiday period, mild health complaints that recur during the year, such as headaches or insomnia, fade away. But let’s explain what these two types of holidays consist of:
– Among the resource-consuming vacation experiences are those in which:
1) we continue to think negatively about the work (negative reflections) such as thinking about everything we don’t like, what has gone wrong, what remains to be solved.
2) “non-work hassles” occur, such as arguments with partners, children, or accidents or mishaps that consume resources.
In both cases, the holiday period does not meet its objective, since it absorbs resources and does not allow for their regeneration. Organizations, as we will see, can do little in the second case, but they can in the first.
– In the case of vacation experiences that generate resources, the authors identify:
1) a positive reflection on the work, such as the positive feeling when thinking about the work done during the year, or about the goals achieved, as well as the illusion of reflecting on the new projects that await us.
2) Holiday experiences that generate resources are also identified as those where there are moments of relaxation —i.e., time for oneself, to rest, to read, to take a quiet walk.
3) Also, experiences of mastery, which are those related to those new experiences learned during the holidays, such as the handling or performance of a new sport, the initiation to a new language, or the successful expedition to a mountain. These three described experiences generate resources, and the researchers conclude that, by generating resources, our well-being increases, and with it, our productivity on our return home.
What companies can do to promote restorative vacations
So, given Fritz and Sonnentag’s findings, what can organizations do before, during and after their employees’ vacations?
- Understand that not all holidays are the same. What happens during the holiday period matters because it has implications on the return, and organisations have some room for manoeuvre.
- Before the holidays: In order to facilitate a good holiday, and being aware of the results of Fritz and Sonnentag, it is important to put in value all the work done during the year. There can be a moment of collective reflection, or in small teams. It can also be used to express gratitude for the work done before the vacation period, as well as to inject enthusiasm into future projects. In short, to leave a good taste in the mouth.
- During vacations: Organisations should be facilitators of good holidays for their employees. In other words, companies or managers responsible for the teams also have to take it seriously. This means, do not interrupt, explicitly inviting not to read emails or answer them, let alone generate them, so that there are moments of relaxation and, consequently, recovery.
- After the holidays: It’s as important to close the work period well, as it is to start it. The authors warn that an excessive workload during the first week can cause the good energy gained during the holiday to fade away or be eliminated. It is important, therefore, to manage the comeback well, and avoid the fade-out of the positive effects of the vacation in order to prolong them.
Together, if we all become aware of how important this period of time is for people, we can learn how to provide ourselves and our colleagues with a holiday that is healthy, restorative and beneficial for work and personal life.
Fritz, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2006). Recovery, Well-Being, and Performance-Related Outcomes: The Role of Workload and Vacation Experiences General Effects of Vacation on Well-Being and Performance-Related Outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 4, 936–945.
Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 513–524.