Vacation

Why you need a real vacation

August 6, 2013: 9:31 AM ET

A reminder of all the good things that come from tuning out for a decent chunk of time.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

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FORTUNE -- Is it irony or poetic justice that I'm frantically working to finish a story on the benefits of vacation so that I can take my own week-long break from work with my family?

As a journalist who has covered workplace issues for more than a decade, I've read countless studies about the boosts in creativity, energy, and productivity that come with time away from the office. And yet, I find it just as challenging to truly unplug -- and put the research into practice -- as any other working stiff.

After all, we live in a stingy vacation culture. The U.S. is the only one of 21 developed countries studied by the Center for Economic Policy Research that doesn't require employers to give paid vacation time; from workaholic Japan to laid-back France, the others mandated between 10 and 30 annual days of paid vacation. A 2012 survey by Expedia found that, on average, Americans don't even use two of the 14 annual vacations days allotted.

Giving your brain a rest

The jobs of the future will demand problem-solving skills and creative approaches to work, everyone agrees. Then why do we keep thinking that more hours at a desk will lead to better work?

Indeed, research has shown that people's productivity peaks when they're working between 35 hours and 50 hours a week, depending on the job structure and type of occupation. There's a good reason Henry Ford agreed to a 40-hour workweek standard: Ford's own internal data showed that additional work hours didn't meaningfully improve productivity.

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This goes double for vacations. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by researchers at Indiana University found that when you have physical distance and temporal distance (a.k.a. time off) from a problem, you're able to come up with more creative solutions. The research builds on the concept of psychological distance, which is important for finding fresh approaches to a thorny problem.

To your health

When I found myself earlier this week spending 10 hours to research and report a story that should've taken me five hours, I started to suspect that both my productivity and creativity were in dire need of a boost. Recipe for a vacation!

Even scarier a fate than being dull and inefficient is the prospect of heart disease or an early death.

A 2000 study of 13,000 middle-aged men found that those who failed to vacation for five years in a row were 30% more likely to experience coronary events than those who took at least a week's vacation every year. In addition, the researchers at the State University of New York, Oswego, found an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease.

Women aren't immune, either. In 2005, researchers found that women who took at least two vacations a year were less likely to be depressed and reported higher marital satisfaction, compared with those who took time off from work less than every other year. The study was published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal.

Family time

I must confess that a small part of me has been dreading the vacation a bit. In addition to worrying about all the work waiting for me when I return, I haven't been looking forward to cooking for and cleaning up after my children for 24 hours over the course of eight days. I enjoy having half the day to myself in a quiet office and fixing lunch just for myself.

But research published in January by Kelton on behalf of the Walt Disney Co. found that quality time increases to 82% of time spent with children on vacation, as compared with half of the time at home. Moreover, 97% of parents report sharing something new about themselves with their children while on vacation, and 54% say the whole family is more affectionate, according to the survey.

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My solution: a job chart for the kids and a firm intention to share the workload, so that the Lewis family can join those happy survey takers reporting more relaxation while on vacation. Remarkably, my children loved the idea and have already planned out the chores for the first two days. Hopefully my health will benefit enough by the vacation to withstand the days when they are planning the meals, which I'm sure will be pancakes, pizza, and nary a vegetable in sight.

Checking out

Our brains and bodies need downtime every day, in the form of rest and sleep, so we can face the next day with fresh reserves of mental and physical energy. But we also need periodic breaks longer than a weekend to recover from day-to-day stress and restore ourselves to optimal function. Just catching up on sleep makes a big difference.

As I've been reporting this story, and the hours tick down to the time when we depart, I've felt my stress level grow. That's probably as good an indication as any that it's time to send it to my editor and head for the hills.

Editor's note: Katherine reviewed edits to this story on her second day of vacation, but promised to completely unplug after that.

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