Taking time off can feel like more work than simply working. You may have to submit a request, talk to your manager, find a replacement, shift your workload, cancel meetings, and/or create an out-of-office plan. Even then, you might still receive calls or texts while you’re away. Is the time off really worth all the effort?
Yes—and studies prove it.
Taking time off of work can improve your sleep, energy, and overall mental wellbeing, and is especially important for minimizing high levels of stress or anxiety. It’s also a beneficial burnout prevention strategy.
“Increased productivity, improved physical health, and improved self-esteem are all positive effects that coincide with taking mental health days,” says Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Soul of Therapy.
Here’s why you should take more time off and embrace extended breaks, plus how you can maximize your time to fully unwind and destress.
Why taking time off is recommended
A 2017 study of more than 7,300 employees found that over 52 percent left vacation time unused and only one in four (27 percent) said they unplugged while on vacation. The more connected employees found it harder to take time off, and those working remotely put more pressure on themselves to check in while on vacation compared to those working in-person.
It never feels like the right time to take off, but it’s essential for your overall health and well-being and your work productivity and satisfaction.
Working more than 40 hours per week, which far too many of us do, can lead to poor sleep, anxiety, depression, heart disease, and other physical and mental health conditions. It doesn’t matter if you’re working at a job you love or building a company on your own, you need to take time away to decompress and restore your mental and physical energy.
In fact, reduced working hours have been shown to improve sleep, stress levels, and contribute to a better working life, but only when those hours are spent wisely. If you’re checking your emails every hour or checking in on your colleagues on your day off, then you’re not really benefiting from the break.
Arzt says, “Decompressing requires actually disconnecting from the emotional and logistical toll of work. This usually isn't achieved in just a few hours (or even a few days). But it's a good idea to start with at least one or two days to practice self-care and attune yourself to your mental health needs.”
Understanding the importance of extended breaks
A 2020 study assessing long work hours, night work, weekend work, and short rest periods found that extended time away (such as weekends spent not working), in which you can detach from work, relax, and enjoy challenging non-work activities, improves mental health. This is one of many reasons why you should disconnect from work on Friday night—and really enjoy the days off.
In Iceland, where the four-day work week was made mandatory, worker wellbeing not only improved when hours were reduced (without changing pay), but work productivity remained the same or even improved across the majority of workplaces. The more time employees had for exercise, friends, or hobbies, the less stressed they felt and the more energy they had.
Likely, you can’t take off every Friday—or institute a four-day work week (though it would be great if you could!)—but you can make the most of the days you’re afforded every year or your unlimited paid time off which, in most cases, gets used less frequently than traditional time off.
Some people wait all year to utilize their days off, but studies have found that frequency is just as impactful as duration—frequent time off can be more important than the duration of one single recovery episode. The best time to take leave is around particularly stressful times, such as after a busy period at work or after reaching an important deadline. Rather than waiting for a two-week vacation, the effects of which will only last so long, consider taking more frequent mental health days throughout the year.
Maximize your time away from work
Once you decide to take time off, ensure you make the most of it.
“Have a plan in place,” says Arzt. “If you don't, you risk wasting time just scrolling through social media, watching TV, or trying to ‘get things done’ on your to-do list.”
Consider what you would like to do during your day off and what you need to do to recharge, she suggests. This could include a hike in nature, a long lunch with an old friend, or laying in bed with your phone turned off. Make sure you take the time for self-care practices, such as meditation, exercise, sleep, and boundary-setting.
Researchers have suggested that there are six recovery experiences, which help improve your time off and produce the most optimal functioning at work and at home. These include:
Detachment: the act of distancing yourself from work
Relaxation: lowering the tension in your mind and body
Control: having the ability to determine what you do during your time off
Mastery: taking on challenging experiences and learning new things
Meaning: engaging in activities that provide a sense of purpose
Affiliation: fostering the feeling of connectedness over shared activities
Self-care activities, such as yoga and meditation, have proven beneficial for stress management, but others can be just as rewarding. Some of these include journaling, trying a new activity, playing a game, reading a book, hanging with a friend, playing a recreational sport, or listening to music. The key is to take time for yourself and not let others dictate what you should do.
Don’t second-guess yourself; take those vacation days
If you’re feeling exhausted, irritable, unmotivated, detached, anxious…or if you can’t remember the last time you utilized PTO, then it’s time to rearrange your schedule and take a day (or more) off.
“Burnout comes up when we are going nonstop at a task and our minds and bodies are in a constant state of stress,” says Kali Wolken, LMHC, LPC, CCC, career and mental health counselor at The Lookout Point, LLC. “When we rest intentionally by taking a day off here or there, we not only get the rest we need, but we also start to remind ourselves of the power we have to care for ourselves.”
It can be tempting to save all of your days for an event, family gathering, friend’s wedding, or some other “important” reason, but this can negatively affect your mental health and well-being. Before you come up with another excuse (I know, I know, work is busy), talk to your manager and request those days off. There’s no better time than now to prioritize yourself and your mental wellbeing.