There are some days - mostly Mondays - where we might lean back in the office chair and daydream about taking a luxurious beach holiday. Three weeks lazing around on a beach, sipping pina coladas and staying horizontal. Wouldn’t it be nice?

During stressful times, it’s easy to want a lengthy break. But over the course of a year, are they the best idea? Or are more frequent, shorter breaks more effective at giving us the rest we need?

It’s worth thinking about as we give some thought to our overall ’strategy’ for annual leave. What works best for you?

How long do the effects of a holiday last?

While there’s a long history of productivity research in the world of business academia, the effects of taking annual leave only make up a small fraction of that. So we don’t have all the answers yet, but there have been some interesting discoveries.

A 2011 study from the University of Konstanz, Germany, questioned a number of university staff who returned after taking leave.

“Results indicated that teachers' work engagement significantly increased and teachers' burnout significantly decreased after vacation. However, these beneficial effects faded out within one month.”

It’s not too surprising. Even the best holiday in the world isn’t going to keep you buzzing for more than a few weeks, once you get back to the rhythm of things.

This meta-analysis (an analysis of different experiments) from the Journal of Occupational Health sought to find out the extent to which annual leave has positive effects on health and wellbeing. The results were clear:

"The results suggest that vacation has positive effects on health and well-being... but that these effects soon fade out after work resumption."

So you could conclude that more frequent leave, sprinkled throughout the year, could give you a higher total amount of boosted wellbeing.

But it’s not just the short term benefits that matter. Regular breaks are good for long-term health. It makes sense if you consider it. From the German study:

"Looking at the fade-out of beneficial effects of vacation, one might ask "When positive effects fade out so fast, why does vacation matter at all?". We suppose that potential benefits of recurrent vacationing that develop over the years may not be captured by assessing short-term well-being or performance-related outcomes.”

Maybe there isn’t an immediate, measurable performance gain in every employee - that depends on the type of work anyway. It’s not easy to measure the performance of a security guard, or cleaner, or an IT support technician. But if they were denied the same leave as everyone else you could guarantee their performance would suffer.

Interestingly, the above study also notes that, based on their wellbeing surveys;

"individuals should avoid negative work reflection during vacation, as it seems to be highly detrimental for recovery."

Best thing to do on holiday? Forget about work!

Photo by Anthony Tran / Unsplash

Different strokes for different folks

It all comes down to personal preference. If you’re energised and excited by taking a big adventurous trip every year, then changing it up for two days in Scarborough might not be an effective way for you to relax. (Not that it isn’t a lovely place).

Getting through particularly challenging times at work can be much better when you’ve got something exciting to look forward to. It could be a dream destination or a cultural hotspot, but might also just be some time to chill. Lots of nature time, catching up on your TV boxsets, or reading books in local cafés.

You’re more likely to be able to forget about work and clear your mind on long holidays, too.

And if you swap your 2-week trip to Australia for 4 long weekend city breaks around Europe, that’s potentially more time organising and travelling that you could have spend just relaxing.

Then again, with the shorter option, your post-holiday glow will potentially be spread throughout the year. Plus, it could be cheaper if you’re using last-minute deal sites for your flights and hotels.  

It’s also worth bearing in mind whether or not you want to account for each day of leave. While you might want to plan every single day of leave as soon as you can, it can be useful to keep a couple on hand for unexpected necessities.

If you’re happy that your company will give you additional time off for unplanned reasons like family emergencies, or having to wait at home for a package delivery or BT engineer, then go ahead and get booking. Some might like to keep a spare day or two of leave until the end of the year for things like that.

Although we’d argue a compassionate company would always be understanding enough to grant some flexibility - another reason to promote remote work.

Finally, culture is going to make a difference. A fast-paced, stressful company culture is more likely to make people want to take frequent breaks, simply to get away from it all.

Taking time off matters for everyone - so if management and employees take it seriously, the right balance can be achieved.

Quality over quantity

This excellent blog from Jill Duffy at Productivity Report notes the importance of holiday quality over length. Jill reports three critical factors that make time of effective for recovery:

  1. We need to have control over what we do during our time off (some amount of freedom from responsibilities)
  2. We need to intentionally relax (stressful or adventurous holidays aren’t great for recovery)
  3. We need to detach from work (as mentioned above - forget about work as much as you can)

Whether you’re taking a long weekend off or a few weeks, that seems like pretty sensible advice to make sure you come back rested and ready to go.

Feature photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash