Is there a scientifically-proven perfect length of holiday?

There’s a wide range of research done all over the world into how people and organisations work. Taking regular breaks from work is universally acknowledged to be a good thing for both employees and the companies they work for.

Going without a break for a long time leads to increased stress, burnout, and even adverse health conditions.

But how do you know when to take a holiday, and how long you should take it for?

We’d love to know - and in fact, we’ve been researching it ourselves for potential features within Timetastic. It’s a difficult question to answer, though, for a few reasons.

Whatever the advice is, it’s going to be a rule of thumb. Everyone’s different - we all have different circumstances, health, commitments, environments, work styles and responsibilities. Loads of factors go into how much rest we need, and how often we need it.

And because there are so many variables covering many different fields of research, it’s hard to find reliable studies that seek the answer while taking all of them into account.

So to find at least a ballpark figure, we need to look at a few different factors. Here’s what we found.

Long enough to prevent burnout

What’s the most important reason to take a holiday?

Preventing burnout.

Burnout is more than just feeling tired. It’s a longer-term collection of health issues that come from chronic stress in the workplace, characterised by the WHO as:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
  3. reduced professional efficacy

There’s a lot going on in your body when burnout strikes. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment you become ‘burnt out’, there are certain things happen in the body that are characteristic of burnout:

  • Elevated levels of cortisol, the ’stress hormone’,
  • Elevated levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, the neurotransmitters that are released preparing the body for “fight or flight”
  • Changed levels of blood glucose and other metabolic factors
  • Cardiovascular reactivity including blood pressure changes
  • Elevated levels of Interleukin-6, a protein that signals inflammation

Together these make up the ‘allostatic load’, the ‘wear and tear’ on the body that comes from prolonged stress.

We can’t measure these changes in your body (maybe in a future Timetastic update?) but it shows that burnout isn’t something to be dismissed - it’s a danger to your health.

The best way to prevent burnout? Regular holidays, long enough to lower these stress factors, improve health & wellbeing.

Photo by Nadi Whatisdelirium / Unsplash

Eight days is the ideal

So how long do you need to take off work to prevent burnout? There’s no agreed definite answer, but some researchers have tried to find out.

A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies surveyed a group of Dutch employees who took holidays longer than 14 days, and had them report on various factors throughout and afterwards.

The study found that:

" and wellbeing increased quickly during vacation, peaked on the eighth vacation day and had rapidly returned to baseline level within the first week of work resumption."

So participants’ health and wellbeing peaks during the eighth day - meaning holidays longer than eight days didn’t produce any noticeably better outcomes, or longer-lasting effects once they got back to the workplace.

Another study published in 2009 in the Journal of Occupational Health showed how fuzzy the research currently is on this topic. The meta-analysis (study of multiple studies) found that “vacation has positive effects on health and well-being, but these effects soon fade out after work resumption” and that more research is required to reach a proper conclusion.

So you might conclude that taking at least 8 days’ consecutive holiday is a necessity for full-time employees at least once a year - and hopefully more.

Holidays give you a boost before and afterwards

It’s not just getting away from the workplace that enhances your wellbeing. It’s the before and after, too.

Research published in the Journal of Psychology and Health found that in the weeks leading up to a holiday, stressful experiences had less of an elevating effect on employees’ ambulatory heart rates - that is, their general heart rates as they performed their daily duties.

This means that just knowing you’ve got a holiday coming up can put your body in a more relaxed state, refusing to succumb to stress as much as usual.

And then, you’ve got that post-holiday glow.

We've written before about the productivity boost workers get after returning from holiday. It differs for different people, but is said to last for around one month. After that, you return to baseline levels.

How long it takes after that to enter burnout isn't clear - there's more research needed. But it's something for both managers and workers to keep an eye on, because of the noticeably harmful effects.

So if you sprinkle a few different 8-day holidays through the year, you'll prevent burnout and enjoy periods of enhanced productivity. Seems like a good way to do it.

Here's one last study for you to ponder on the topic.  

Research published in the Journal of Psychology and Health found that people who took more holidays each year had a lower chance of developing metabolic syndrome - a set of conditions that increase your likelihood of developing heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

So even if we are prone to feast while we’re on holiday, the benefits in stress reduction may outweigh the increased caloric intake. Take a break - and enjoy some cake.