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Psychiatrist Patricia Casey: Are holidays really worth the hassle?

The holiday season is just about to commence, and it will give free reign to our fantasies. Dreams of sun-drenched beaches, strolling under the palm trees as the sun sets, or the exhilarating feeling of hiking in the Himalayas, are just some of the images that impel us to our destinations.

But are holidays abroad always helpful? Perhaps we should just have time at home for a few weeks. Would it not be better than spending hard-earned money struggling with luggage, with delayed flights and long queues at the security checks? The tourism industry thrives on the belief that holidays are good for happiness and that they restore wellbeing and so help both our work and our family life. But is that really true?

The most prolific researcher in the field of holidays and organisational psychology is Jessica de Bloom from Gronigen University in Holland. She has researched vacations from every angle ­- optimum length, short versus longer breaks, staycations away from home versus home-based breaks and so on.

Her team have examined the transition period from work to holidays with fascinating results that confirm what most of us sense to be true – that our workload seems to increase as we frantically try to clear our desks so that we can have a worry-free holiday and not be burdened by guilt that we are leaving behind unfinished business for others to pick up. A longitudinal study following 96 Dutch workers in the two weeks before their vacation. It found that health and wellbeing decreased in the last one to two weeks before departure. This decline was related to an increased workload and was even more pronounced in women, who additionally experienced a rise in home load. While anticipation of the holiday was high during that period, surprisingly it did not compensate for the impact of the increased workload. Others have found that the early days of holidays are marred for many by poor sleep, high blood pressure and lack of energy and motivation. This is possibly due to the sudden reduction in steroid production that stress induces and precipitously declines when the holiday commences.

The question remains, if pre-trip workload, including housework, increase to the extent that our health and wellbeing are compromised, is it worth the hassle? De Bloom and her team answer this question too. They found that employee health and wellbeing increased over the holiday period and a Swedish study found that during the holiday period prescriptions for antidepressants decreased. It is believed that relaxation, pleasure and a sense of control over one’s daily activities were more important contributors than was the type of activity engaged in. So whether one is engaged in activities like rock climbing, or just mooching by a pool makes little difference, provided that is what one wants to do. In de Bloom’s studies she found that the sense of wellbeing peaked after eight days. These investigators have also found that wellbeing declines within the first week on return to work although on initial return, job performance and collegiality was high. Her view was that even though the impact of the holiday on mood diminished rapidly, the emotional and psychological distance from work served an important restorative function that allowed the person to continue in their employment.

It is hardly surprising that incidents like illness, unexpectedly bad weather, family stressors and such like, blight holidays and so going to stay with family members down the country or in the city may not be such a good idea because it is easy to get inveigled into family disputes, illnesses (even if mild) and other issues that arise. De Bloom has also examined the benefits of just staying at home for a break rather than travelling and she found that leaving home to travel, even in the same country, conferred extra benefits on wellbeing proving that the banal aphorism “a change is as good as a rest” is true. In fact, it’s even better.

Yet all this good news carries a warning. For couples who have a poor relationship, being together for prolonged periods during holidays can cause an escalation in tension and several studies have identified applications for separation and divorce as peaking after holiday periods like summer and Christmas.

So enjoy your summer break. Distance yourself from work and do what you want to do rather than what others instruct you to do. If sipping Prosecco by the pool is your thing, so be it. If high culture is your “fix” then spend as much time as you wish in museums and galleries. But be aware that neither of these will change your life irrevocably and the feeling of drudgery will return soon after you get back to work.



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