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We generally associate annual leave with going on a holiday, taking time off to attend key events such as a wedding, or to attend to a personal matter such as a health appointment. Many people use annual leave to ‘extend’ their time off around the official holidays, such as Easter and Christmas. It’s important, however, to be mindful of the overriding reason and key purpose of annual leave, which is to provide time away from work and the routine of everyday life.

Ensuring that you have sufficient rest from work is important to us all and is considered one of the key pillars of maintaining our health and wellbeing. Contrary to what many people believe, taking annual leave is also essential for boosting motivation levels and improving productivity throughout the remainder of the year.

Many employees neglect taking annual leave

The rise in the phenomena of ‘leaveism’ (an employee using their annual leave to complete work) has become more prevalent.

There are many people who neglect taking all their annual leave breaks, and even people who regularly work through their leave.

When we finally go on leave, many of us can’t resist checking our work emails and messages and others even continue to work.

There are many reasons why people do this, including the pressures of work, wanting to stay on top of the ‘in tray’, worrying that we should always look diligent and be seen to have a willingness to go the extra mile, or simply not knowing that having sufficient rest breaks is vital to maintaining our wellbeing, regardless of our personal circumstances.

A survey by the US Travel Association found that in the year 2000, workers took an average of 21 days annual leave; by 2013 the number of days taken had dropped to 16 days.

Over the last 18 months, the trend of reducing time off has understandably been exacerbated by the pandemic. Working from home, travel restrictions, and generalised anxiety about the risks of travel in general has led to a tendency for some to decide to just work on through and cut annual leave time.

Rest is critical to success at work

There are so many articles focusing on how to work better, how to get more done, and be more successful, but there is very little written about the key role played by ‘rest’, and the importance of time-out in our lives.

Many think of rest as the opposite of work, and therefore don’t take it too seriously, and some of us even avoid it!

Assisted by technology, working communities have become powerhouses of productivity; but we continue to work longer hours, neglecting those critical moments of rest that provide us with the energy and motivation we need to succeed.

Taking leave is essential for your health

Extensive research has shown that taking annual leave for its designed purpose, which is to give yourself time to detach from the challenges and demands of work, is tremendously important for your mental and physical wellbeing.

Annual leave allows you the time to focus on something entirely different, helping you to re-charge your energy and enthusiasm for work.

The loss to your personal health and wellbeing in not taking annual leave is considerable: long-term health studies such as The Framingham Heart Study found that over a 20-year period, women who vacated regularly were less prone to getting heart attacks than women who took less leave.

A 9-year study of 12,000 men, focusing on men who were at a higher risk of heart disease, found that the men who took regular leave breaks suffered less heart attacks and lower overall mortality, compared to the same group who took less leave.

Beware of burnout!

Not taking proper rest breaks has also been shown to lead to a condition known as burnout.

Burnout has been extensively studied across high-stress professional work environments and is characterised by emotional exhaustion, a decline in work performance, poor decision-making, higher rates of error, and the tendency to develop a lack of empathy towards colleagues and clients.

People suffering from burnout can become detached from work, often feel that their work has little value to themselves or others, and can contribute to relationship problems and lead to depression.

Research has concluded that whatever short-term benefits may be achieved through over-work and delaying taking annual leave, they are entirely overshadowed by the long-term costs of lost productivity, errors, and abbreviated careers.

4 ways to maximise your rest breaks

Given the mental and physical costs of burnout, many people are interested in knowing what kind of rest breaks offer the greatest support for work recovery.

A German sociologist known as Sabine Sonnentag carried out extensive research over 20 years into what type of rest best helps re-charge one’s emotional and physical batteries. Sonnentag and her team reviewed multiple professions, and reviewed types and lengths of rest periods, including research into the effects of weekends and longer vacation periods. Her findings and conclusions over decades of research have been consistent: workers who are able to get away, switch off mentally, and devote their energies elsewhere, return to work more productive, with a refreshed positive mindset and focus on work, and are more resilient to work challenges.

Sonnentag’s research identified 4 major factors that contribute to rest and recovery:

  • Relaxation;
  • Mental detachment from work;
  • Control;
  • Participating in ‘mastery experiences’.

All 4 factors work together to maximise effectiveness. Let’s take a look at each in a bit more detail.

1

Relaxation

This can be achieved by pursuing pleasant and undemanding activities that don’t require a great deal of conscious effort and shouldn’t feel like work. However, these don’t have to be entirely passive pastimes.
2

Mental detachment

Breaks from the normal routine of work and home life are a key factor in promoting rest.
Knowing that you can’t be contacted because you are out of range of a signal helps make it easier to relax and focus on what you are doing whilst relaxing!
Research has shown that even taking business trips helps reduce levels of job stress and the potential for burnout.
3

Control

In rest and recovery, control means having the power to decide how you want to spend your time on your rest break.
If you don’t have much control over what happens at work and outside work, and you are also responsible for home duties and chores, you will have higher levels of day-to-day stress.
Being able to control your time on holiday will therefore be an important and restorative factor for you.
4

Mastery experiences

Mastery experiences are engaging and interesting activities that you enjoy doing. They can be mentally absorbing and challenging and help to push thoughts of work out of your mind.
These types of activities provide all-round wellbeing rewards. They can include things like mastering a new recipe in the kitchen, learning a new hobby such as knitting or woodwork, or even engaging in some DIY at home or in your garden.

Annual Leave in conclusion

It is important to remember that everyone is unique when it comes to resting and switching off. There is no technique that works for everyone, regardless of personal background.

Nevertheless, breaking down rest into these 4 factors is a useful way to find techniques that work each individual. Every worker can do with finding more time to relax, to mentally detach themselves, to become more in control of their day-to-day lives, and to master new experiences.

So, be bold and encourage your employees to find a rest routine that works for them!

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