By 6 a.m., Sam Clarke is usually already on a call with an Asian tech company halfway around the world. By the afternoon, she switches to calls in the U.S. And until she goes to bed, she keeps an eye on her email. On a bad week, Clarke, a sales manager for a software startup in San Francisco, clocks in about 55 hours. In the tech industry, "you always have to be available to the customer," she says, adding that the mentality makes going offline on vacation nearly impossible.
While Clarke, who is in her mid-30s, says she takes all the time off she can get, she admits she works through most of her vacation. “[My friends and I] spend the first two days taking calls and doing email,” she says.
Americans have hit an all-time low when it comes to taking off work. More than 4 in 10 people do not use all of their vacation days for fear of work piling up or because they feel no one else can do their job while they're away, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Travel Association’s Project: Time Off. And for employees who do take time off, many, like Clarke, end up working a little every day. “I’m a much nicer person when I have a good work-life balance,” says Clarke, who took six months off to evaluate her priorities after leaving her last job, which demanded 60 hours a week. “I didn’t have a good perspective on life. I wasn’t making time for friends or things like the gym.”
Experts say overloading without taking time to recharge isn’t healthy. “It might seem counterintuitive when you have a lot of work to take time off,” says Karen Osterle, a psychotherapist and marriage counselor in the District of Columbia. “But the problem is we’re not working efficiently if we’re in a constant state of stress. We need to break away from that in order to feel replenished.”
How do you know when it’s time to get away? It’s all about understanding the needs of your body, Osterle says. The body is like an ecosystem that wears and tears if it’s not taken care of, she explains. “When one part of the system is knocked out of balance, the rest of our physicality suffers,” she says. “That includes eating, sleeping, exercise, relationships, sex and affection.”
In general, she recommends taking a three-day weekend at least once every two months and a real vacation, of a week or more, once a year. But simply booking a vacation isn’t enough. Whether you’re taking a day or a week off, here’s how experts say you should spend your vacation days to prioritize your health.
1. Tune in to relieve stress. Start the day by improving your relationship with yourself. A few minutes of “me time” on a morning walk can improve productivity throughout the day, Osterle says. “If you’re going to take a day off, take a few minutes to look around and say, ‘Whoa, [I'm] out of balance here, but not here. … What is that I keep saying 'yes' to, or I should say 'no' to?’” she says. Meditation can also help you concentrate on abdominal breathing, which reduces stress and anxiety, according to The American Institute of Stress.
2. Plan to alleviate anxiety. When you take a day off, don’t expect to completely catch up on paying bills, cleaning the house, working out and going out with friends. Instead, Osterle says to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day, given the number of distractions you may face (like making the kids an after-school snack or taking the dog for a walk). “Much of the time when we take a step back, it increases productivity, and we feel agency over our schedule and our flexibility,” says Dr. Jennifer Wolkin, a psychologist at the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center. Wolkin adds that it’s important to balance work and time off to decrease anxiety about the internal conflict between the two. For example, she says it's OK if you need to spend a few hours working during your vacation, but wait until the kids go to bed to make sure you don't miss out on family time.
3. Set boundaries to feel calmer. Before going on vacation, decide how much time you’re going to spend working and when you’re going to do it. That way you’ll feel calmer about going offline for a few hours, Wolkin says. Turning your phone off may not be realistic for everyone, but turning off your email and social media notifications is one way to limit screen time while trying to relax at the beach and spend quality time with friends and family.
4. Sleep more to re-energize. Little sleep mixed with high stress is a recipe for burning out. Besides making you irritable and tired, sleep deprivation can have negative consequences on your cognitive performance and efficiency, says Max Hirshkowitz, chairman of the board of the National Sleep Foundation. “Catching up on sleep is good for your health, spirit and happiness,” he says. “Evidence shows people perform better when they get adequate amounts of sleep.” To feel rested and productive, the NSF says adults should aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night. “Reserve that time,” Hirshkowitz says. “Make it an important thing you need.”
5. Be present to revitalize your relationships. A few days off can rekindle relationships that have suffered because of your working life. A survey by Project: Time Off published in July found that not taking time off can hurt close relationships. Of the 1,214 U.S. adults surveyed, the average worker misses about three events a year, the most common being a child’s activity. About 43 percent of people surveyed said they spend less than 20 hours a week with their family, yet 73 percent said spending time with family is important for a fulfilling life. “We’re cheating on our families with work,” says Katie Denis, senior director of Project: Time Off. She adds that it's critical to make time for meaningful conversations while on vacation. Even a few hours of face-to-face time with your spouse or kids can make a difference, Osterle says. "Vacation is about connection above all else, the self-connection to nature and the earth and the connection to your loved ones," she says. "It’s about getting present."
6. Balance choices to relieve food guilt. Most people are going to drink on vacation -- that’s a given, says Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and contributor to the U.S. News Eat + Run blog. But setting a goal to avoid drinks with mini umbrellas will prevent you from feeling guilty about your choices later. “Stay away from the sweetened cocktails, the frozen drinks, the strawberry daiquiris,” she says, adding that it’s better to stick to drinks that don’t have a lot of added sugar. Gans also recommends planning healthy meals so you don't settle for greasy fast food. But you're still on vacation, so it's OK to indulge in moderation. "Whether it's at breakfast, lunch or dinner, allow yourself one more decadent choice than usual per day," Gans writes in "7 Tips for Healthy (Enough) Eating on Vacation."
7. Stay active to feel rejuvenated. Vacation should be relaxing, but Gans recommends people do more than lie on the beach and drink piña coladas all day. “It doesn’t mean you need to run every day if you’re clearly not a runner, but try new, fun activities like kayaking or going for a hike or checking out a new yoga studio,” she says. Exercise can also improve your mood and make you more energized throughout the day, according to the American Psychological Association. That extra energy will come in handy so you can take the kids sightseeing around town.
8. Cultivate other interests to improve happiness. Branch out. “It’s essential to have outside hobbies from work,” says Phil Shils, physician assistant at Hospital Sisters Health System Medical Group. To feel refreshed and happier at the office, Shils recommends trying new activities on vacation that you can continue throughout the year, such as biking or playing tennis. “Any time you’re out of your routine, your brain remodels itself and refreshes," he says. When the weekend rolls around, Clarke makes time for softball games in a local league. Even if it's only for a few hours, she says getting away from her desk helps keep her mind off the stress of long days filled with back-to-back calls.
With all the calls, emails and high stress, it doesn't take long before work starts to take a toll on your health. “If we get into a work vortex, it’s too easy to adopt a default stance of saying 'no' to people and activities that are replenishing for us,” Osterle says. “[Vacations] give us a chance to recalibrate.”
8 Ways To Vacation Right And Recharge Your Health originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report.