“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”

Jim Goodwin

Did you ever leave the office but never really leave the office?

Well, here are a few things we know about both taking vacations and getting away from work (emotionally, cognitively and physically) based on some recent research:


The famous Framingham Heart Study followed approximately 12,000 men ages 35 – 57 at risk of heart disease, for nine years. Researchers wanted to know if there were ways to improve the men’s longevity. The participants were asked about a number of lifestyle topics, including vacation. It was found that taking an annual vacation actually cuts the risk of a fatal heart attack for male employees by 32 percent ((Brooks, G. & Matthews, K. (2000). Are Vacations Good for Your Health? The 9-Year Mortality Experience after the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial, Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 608-612)). This held true even when controlling for variables like higher education and income (which are predictive of longer lifespan). It appears that the link between vacation and longevity is undeniable.


Mentally distracting oneself from work during non-work hours can help restore emotional, cognitive and spiritual resources lost because of long hours, work stress and demands ((Fritz, C., Yankelevich, M., Zarubin, A. & Barger, P., (2010). Happy, healthy and productive: The role of detachment from work during nonwork time. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 977-983)).

At its core, psychological detachment is often conceptualized as specific cognitive and affective states where there is an absence of work related thoughts and feelings. Detachment is different from disengagement as the former means activities, experiences, thoughts and feelings during non-work time and the latter refers to attitudes and behaviors connected with work. Earlier research (e.g., Sonnetag and Fritz, 2007) found significant associations between psychological detachment and well-being such as job burnout ( r = .-56) and life satisfaction (r = .37).

Although talent need to detach from work for well-being and performance, high levels of detachment might take longer to get back into a work mentality and mode which could actually interfere with work performance. Two new studies help us to understand whether detachment is important and if so, how much actually is needed.

Sabine Sonnetag from the University of Konstanz and the University of Mainz conducted a 12-month longitudinal study with 309 human service employees to explore the role of psychological detachment when jobs are high in demands (e.g., heavy work load and low control). They found that psychological detachment from work during off–job time significantly predicted less emotional exhaustion and buffered the relationship between job demands, psychosomatic complaints and employee engagement ((Sonnetag, S., Binnewies, C. & Mojza, E. (2010). Staying well and engaged when demands are high: The role of psychological detachment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 965-976)).

As with their earlier study, these findings again suggest that getting away from work (mentally, emotionally and behaviorally) is most important when we are stressed, have a high workload or overloaded. The lesson from their study is that when job demands are really high employees should use rituals such as winding down at the end of the working day and deliberately use commuting time and off-work time to disengage from job-related thoughts (e.g., avoiding the temptation to check emails or mentally prepare for a meeting or work related interaction scheduled the next day).

Charlotte Fritz and colleagues from Portland State University and Bowling Green University surveyed 172 working adults and measured detachment, emotional exhaustion, life satisfaction, task performance and proactive behavior (i.e., personal imitative) while controlling for negative affectivity, workload, autonomy and demographics. As in previous research, higher level of detachment was related to higher life satisfaction and significantly lower emotional exhaustion. Interestingly, they found a curvilinear association between psychological detachment and coworker reported job performance.

This study seems to suggest that although psychological detachment is indeed associated with enhanced psychological well-being, it appears that a moderate level of detachment is actually most beneficial for job performance.

Lack of detachment might not always be bad — positive work reflection during weekends and holidays increases well-being of employees when they return to work (Sonnetag, 2006) and social support from non-work sources appears to protect physical health and psychological well-being.

So, it appears that getting away from work is important (e.g., taking vacations) and mentally detaching generally is conducive for feeling less stress and burnout.

Other Recovery Suggestions

  • Sleep: Adults need on average 7–9 hours of sleep per night (Dement, 2005). Several studies have shown that a nap of 15–20 minutes is very beneficial for recovery (Takahashi, Fukuda, & , 1998). However, too much or too little sleep can affect performance in a negative way. Moreover, not only the quantity but also the quality of sleep is important for recovery and performance (e.g., Craig & Cooper,1992).
  • Physical Activities: Physical activities refer to behaviors including exercise, physical training, sports etc. Physical exercise is important to maintain fitness and is found to contribute to physical and mental health (McAuley, Kramer, & Colcombe, 2004) and is linked to longevity  (Moore, et al., 2012).
  • Hobbies: In their study among a heterogeneous sample of workers, Winwood et al., (2007) found that employees reporting higher level of creative activity (e.g., hobbies) reported significantly better sleep, recovery between work periods, and lower chronic physical and emotional fatigue.
  • Mental and Physical Relaxation: Mindfulness meditation, mental imagery, breathing, yoga, and other relaxation techniques help reverse the “fight or flight” response, increase positive emotions and reduce the inflammatory response associated with depression and fatigue.
  • Humor: It has been demonstrated that humor states (e.g., Texas and Florida) and associated laughter can benefit stress and coping, as well as various other health-related outcomes, such as pain threshold (Healy & McKay, 2000).
  • Social Support: Our own research (Nowack & Pentkowski, 1994) demonstrated the power of strong social support networks minimizing stressful situations at work and home.  Whether our support system provides direct tangible help, information or just emotional support it can play a great role in helping us to detach from work and recover.

New research suggests building daily routines of deliberately thinking about how we have made a difference in some way during the past week may not only increase our positive emotions but have spillover effects both at work and at home ((Sonnentag, S. & Grant, A. (2012).  Doing good at work feels good at home, but not right away: When and why perceived prosocial impact predicts positive affect.  Personnel Psychology, 65, 495-530)).

I think I will take a break now and think about some ways I have made some progress on my work goals and reflect on the small things I have done to make a difference in someone’s life….Be well….

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Wellness

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