To leave or not to leave

People who have regular breaks are often more focused.

Why holidays are vital to our health.

Updated 11 November 2015

Given the choice between putting their feet up on a tropical island or sitting at a desk, it appears many Australians choose the latter. Lifting the curtain on how many workers are simply not taking the leave to which they are entitled, Tourism Australia reveals that as at September 2012 (the latest available figures), employees had accrued a staggering 131 million days of annual leave.

The cost of holidays is a major disincentive – but the need to keep days in reserve for “emergencies” is another. Pressure of work and the fear of losing jobs are uppermost in people’s minds, too.

An annual poll conducted by online travel site Expedia revealed that a third of employees said they had cancelled or postponed holiday plans because of their workload, while more than a quarter said their employers were “unsupportive” of annual leave.

To counteract this reluctance to rest and recuperate, Tourism Australia’s “No Leave No Life” campaign aims to raise awareness of the benefits to companies and their staff of taking holidays – while at the same time nudging them to travel within their own country. Pepsico is one of a number of companies to have used the campaign resources to increase take-up of holiday entitlement among its staff.

But some companies are taking it a step further, actively encouraging employees to get out and try new things away from work. Specialist recruitment company TRC Group leads by example with its Gold Club scheme: top-performing consultants jet off to places they would never normally visit, such as the Great Wall of China, courtesy of the company. In 2013, high-flyers went on an African safari.

Related: How do you take a break and still keep up?

The value placed on downtime is one of the reasons that TRC has an average staff tenure that is double the recruitment industry average and has made it the leading Recommended Employer within the industry for 2012.

“What we’ve found is that people who have fairly regular breaks seem to be more focused,” says Simon Moss, TRC’s managing director.

“We all get bogged down in the day-to-day grind and lose a bit of passion. [After a holiday] people come back refreshed and with new ideas.”

TRC has a large number of overseas nationals on staff, explains Moss.

“Our people want to go home, to feel connected. They start on a minimum of 23 days leave that grows over time. That allows them to have a good chunky break without using up all their holidays.”

Accumulating leave, while not unheard of at TRC, is uncommon among salespeople, who burn out regularly.

Related: Love your job but need a break? Take a sabbatical

“Strangely,” says Moss, “it’s the quieter people, such as in admin, who tend not to take leave. There was one employee we had to force to take leave by moving them to a nine-day fortnight, which resulted in a big uplift in their productivity.”

Surprisingly, the anecdotal evidence of the benefits of vacations has little in the way of academic research to support it – at least in Australia, says Natalie Skinner, senior research fellow at the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia. Skinner says evidence from overseas research shows that holidays are valuable for three major related reasons.

“First, longer breaks from work of more than two days provide the opportunity for a deeper rest. For many people, weekdays and weekends are often busy and tightly scheduled, especially when households include children.”

Providing a break from the stress and demands of work is another benefit, helping to build up resilience and capacity to cope with life’s challenges, she adds.

“And thirdly, there are mental health benefits from doing enjoyable and meaningful leisure activities. It can be effective therapy against depression, anxiety and burnout.”

Related: What bosses can do about mental health in the workplace

There is also plenty of evidence that enjoyable leisure activities benefit physical health, with reductions in the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes – illnesses that are costing Australia dear in terms of lost productivity and sickness benefits.

People who have regular breaks are often more focused.

People who have regular breaks are often more focused.

But are holidays always good for you? Presumably not if you lose your luggage, get food poisoning or argue with a loved one – or all of those combined. An Austrian study from 2005 measured changes in levels of recuperation and exhaustion among 200 white-collar workers before and after going on holiday. It found that vacation-related health problems and a greater time-zone variation between home and holiday destination were particularly relevant in increasing feelings of exhaustion.

“It’s also important to acknowledge that people use paid leave for many purposes, such as childcare during school holidays or taking care of other family members,” says Skinner.

Even when a person is lucky enough to travel and the holiday is successful and relaxing, how long does that feel-good factor last? A month if you’re lucky, according to Skinner, after which stress levels return to their pre-holiday levels.

“If a person returns to a backlog of work and with less leisure time as well, that will impact upon how quickly the feel-good effects of a holiday fade away.”

How does Australia compare?

Australian workers are taking fewer holidays each year, using only around 15 of the 20 days they are entitled to. It makes Australia the third most vacation-shy country in the world, according to Expedia’s 2012 Vacation Deprivation study. French workers took the most time off with 34.5 days each year while the Japanese took the fewest, only missing between five and nine days each year.

In the US, accruing annual leave is also on the rise, as workers are nervous about being absent from work and losing their jobs. Yet many wish they could take a break: a poignant 82 per cent said that some of the happiest moments in life were during vacations. The US Heart+Mind Strategies survey revealed that nearly 60 per cent also believed that losing paid vacation time decreases a person’s wellbeing.

“The Takeaways from Getaways” survey, commissioned by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, found that more than half of Americans think doctors should be able to prescribe vacations to treat stress, with 77 per cent believing that their overall health improves after a break.

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