Historically, summer break was a time for rejuvenation, vacation and enjoying warm weather. However, the mindset on holiday summer vacation has changed drastically for U.S. employees and employers, resulting in minimal time off, which leads to more workplace stress.
Of all the world’s developed nations, only the United States lacks guaranteed paid time off for its workers. Europeans, on the other hand, enjoy at least 20 days of paid time off each year, not including paid holidays. Although American workers do receive on average 16 annual paid vacation days and holidays combined, 1 in 4 do not even receive one day off with pay.
Taking a break from work is just as important as working hard while in the office. Over the past few years many articles have been published on the topic, such as “No-Vacation Nation,” and how this trend is causing more harm than good in the workplace.
According to surveys by Glassdoor, Americans are taking an entire week less vacation each year, and 61 percent who do plan on taking their paid vacation days say they will be continuing to do work, send emails and make business calls while away. With advanced technology, it is so easy to be wired in while lounging by the pool at a resort in the Caribbean. Falling off the grid without any form of technology linked to the office is hard to come by these days. So, naturally, with all this hard work in the office and no play, one would assume that companies are becoming more productive, right? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not only is workplace productivity decreasing, but employee mental health is also at risk for occupational burnout.
How stress affects the body
Stress is breeding a society of overworked, uninspired, physically exhausted and mentally worn out adults whose health, happiness, motivation and personal relationships are deteriorating as a result. Often called the stress hormone, cortisol is a steroidal hormone released by the adrenal cortex when a person experiences stress. Cortisol enables the classic fight-or-flight response in threatening situations. When cortisol is released too often, it can impact health and short-term memory.
Considered the organ involved in short-term memory, the hippocampus is part of the brain’s temporal lobes. A few studies have explored the theory that cortisol levels impact hippocampal volumes and, therefore, short-term memory. Study participants were interviewed and asked to document their financial and occupational stress levels over a certain time period. Researchers then measured the participants’ cortisol blood levels, tested their memory and measured their hippocampal volume using brain magnetic resonance imaging. When members of these two groups are compared on hippocampal size and memory scores, the high-stress/high-cortisol group has smaller hippocampi and poorer memory scores and the low-stress/low-cortisol group has larger hippocampi and better memory scores.
Elevated cortisol levels in the body can make people feel more fatigued, cause an increase in blood sugar, lead to obesity, suppress the immune system, cause fertility problems and lead to gastrointestinal ailments. The list of physical conditions caused by elevated cortisol over time is endless.
How employee vacations benefit the workplace
This topic of occupational burnout is not stressed enough among employees and employers in the workplace. Taking downtime to unplug and rest is one of the best prescriptions. Lifestyle changes, such as sleeping more, making meaningful social connections, exercising regularly and taking more vacations, not only decreases cortisol levels and makes people feel better, but these changes can also promote happiness and productivity in the workplace.
Think of it this way, the best athletes know that without adequate rest, their bodies can’t perform or train as efficiently. The brain is no different. When people are constantly tired, how can their brains possibly work at full capacity? The brain needs to rest to function at optimum capacity. The term “recreation” comes from the root “to re-create.” Workers need to focus on re-creating themselves instead of letting themselves become burned out.
Written by Kristen Fuller, M.D., Sovereign Health Group writer