The art of taking a break

Overseas research has shown that taking a restorative holiday and stepping away from work...
Overseas research has shown that taking a restorative holiday and stepping away from work entirely has health benefits. Photo: Getty Images
Are you having time off over summer or are you working through, asks Jan Aitken? Will you take a break next year to recharge your batteries?

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

There seems to be increasing pressure to continue to work. If you do take a break, the work just piles up ahead of your return and the email inbox fills to overflowing. The thought of an increased workload and the long hours required post-holiday to catch up, can make it more appealing to forgo a break to "keep on top of things". Some will continue to deal with emails and answer calls through their "holiday" because its easier in the long run ... isn’t it? Not according to the Framington Heart Study (1947-current) which, among other projects, carried out a 20-year longitudinal study investigating cardiovascular disease and risk factors in a group of women.

The researchers found women who took "infrequent" holidays were significantly more likely to have heart attacks. The same is true for men. In addition to increasing the risk of suffering a cardiac event, those who don’t take holidays are known to suffer from higher rates of burnout (a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought about by excessive and prolonged stress). 

Not surprisingly, this results in reduced focus and lower productivity, sleep is disturbed and the immune system is damaged. More relationship problems are reported and increased levels of depression and suicide result.

With that in mind, it isn’t difficult to see that a good restorative break is a smart thing to take. It’s a win-win for employees and employers and, of course, the self-employed.

Even for those no longer working, a change of scene can be beneficial.

But what constitutes a "restorative break"? What type of holiday provides us with the best recovery from the toils of the year? Dr Sabine Sonnentag, of the University of Mannheim in Germany, has spent her career researching that and related questions. She and her colleagues have discovered four factors that contribute to a truly restorative holiday.

Let’s take a look at them.


It’s not too surprising to find this on the list. Relaxation is simply engaging in pleasant, undemanding activities (mental and/or physical). It doesn’t have to be completely sedentary, however, it shouldn’t require lots of effort.


Control relates to you choosing how and where to spend your time — you literally take control of your holiday. This seems to be especially important for those who have little control in their work environment or for those whose days off are cram-packed with family duties, chores and other commitments.


This isn’t perhaps as obvious as the first two, however, it is equally important. Mastery is about engaging in interesting activities that you do well. It may sound a bit counter-intuitive after relaxation, but the idea is that you do things where you get "into the flow" (a highly-focused mental state). You become mentally absorbed in an activity that is enjoyable and, at the same time, challenging. As you improve your skill level, your level of satisfaction rises. Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and expert in "flow", said these "activities also make your life more meaningful; people who seek out ‘flow’ experiences in difficult, but rewarding activities are happier and have more satisfying lives than people who pursue sybaritic [hedonistic] pleasures".


While this may seem blindingly obvious, it’s becoming more and more difficult to achieve in our hyper-connected world. With email access and a phone in your pocket it’s easy to get caught up in workplace events via social media, intercept and fire off emails and answer work-related calls at anytime night or day. Work seeps into your holiday.Psychological detachment requires escaping all work-related interruptions, no matter how trivial they may be. It has been shown that those who keep in contact with work while on holiday have higher levels of stress and work-family conflicts.

The next part of the "restorative holiday" equation is, "How long should the holiday be?" This will, of course, be dictated by how much annual leave you get and what you’re going to be doing. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to whip to Europe for a week, you’d spend most of that time in aeroplanes and airports! For long distance travel, you’ll want to take a reasonable length of time off. However, here’s something to think about: Research into the effects of holidays shows that people reach "peak" happiness about day eight. After that happiness levels tend to plateau or drop.

The recuperative effects and emotional boost from your holiday seem to wear off around a month after your return to work (possibly even more quickly in high-stress jobs). So rather than one big holiday a year, several shorter ones might spread the restorative effects throughout the year and give you something to plan for and look forward to.

So, whatever it is you choose to do over the summer, think about Dr Sonnentag’s suggestions and have a restful and restorative break.

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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