On Burnout and How Long Holiday Effects Last

On Burnout and How Long Holiday Effects Last

After a long day’s work, we need to recover from all that effort to be able to go back to work the next day and do it all over again.

During recovery, our mood states return to a normal level and the effects of job-related stressors on our overall well-being are minimised.

Think about your well-being in economical terms (Conservation of Resources theory).

At work, you spend personal resources like mood or energy to get tasks done.

At home, you accumulate these resources through recovery.

If you spend too much, you will become depleted so much that you won’t be able to spend anymore.

We have a finite amount of these resources and so if we spend too much, we dig into our reserves – our compensatory resources.

This means that if we go back into the workplace without having sufficiently recovered, we will expend more effort than usual (i.e. compensatory effort) on normal work-related tasks.

And if we continue to spend our resources without properly recovering (i.e. accumulating resources), we will become fatigued, emotionally exhausted, and on the verge of developing chronic conditions such as burnout or depression.

What is burnout?

Burnout is an excessive depletion of the person’s personal resources.

Quite simply, people who don’t adequately recover during their leisure time burnout.

They experience very deep emotional fatigue and become both cognitively and emotionally depleted to the point where they just cannot give any more.

This can be particularly harmful because in some cases you have to spend resources in order to accumulate them. Think social support.

In order to gain social support and share your problems with a close friend, you have to first reach out to them and expend energy in the process.

If you’re burnt out, you’ve got no energy to spend and so you won’t actively seek out support.

Branislav Kubečka via Flickr

In Sweden, burnout is a clinical symptom. It takes about 2 years to recover from a clinical case of burnout.

Once you develop such a condition – it can be really difficult to bounce back from it.

Burnout is quite common in teachers.

A well-known element of burnout in teachers is depersonalisation whereby the teacher no longer views the pupils as human beings and speak of them in cold terms.

In such cases, depersonalisation is a coping response in people who haven’t had enough recovery time.

Sometimes you just a need a holiday

Going on a holiday might be one of the best decisions you’ll make for the entire year, especially if you really need one.

The science behind holidays effects on employee well-being are a testament to that.

But we all know that once we go on holiday and come back, we just want to go on another one again.

Big names in the literature on job stress and recovery from work like Jessica de Bloom, Charlotte Fritz, Sabine Sonnentag, or Jana Kuhnel have immensely contributed to our understanding of holiday effects.

Typically, these experiments look at the well-being of people heading towards a holiday and examine the effects of these holidays after they come back.

So how long do these holiday effects typically last?

Nick Kenrick via Flickr

Perhaps unsurprisingly, well-being is generally better after a holiday compared to just before it.

The question that has interested vacation study researchers the most however is – how long do these vacation (i.e. respite) effects last?

What these studies have found is when a person goes back to work straight after a holiday, there is still a positive, lingering effect for a few more days.

Two weeks after the holiday and the effects of the holiday are still working their magic as there is still some respite effect.

What’s intriguing is that after 3-4 weeks of having come back from holiday, the holiday effects are seen to have faded out completely.

This is the same exact pattern that researchers Kuhnel and Sonnentag found in their experimental results.

In this experiment, emotional exhaustion was tested in a sample of teachers.

What we see in Figure 1. below is that there is a significant drop in emotional exhaustion levels at ‘Time 2’. This is the time when the teachers have come back straight from their holidays.

‘Time 3’ represents the emotional exhaustion of teachers only a couple of weeks after their return from holiday.

em ex
Source: Kuhnel & Sonnentag (2011)


We can see that their emotional exhaustion is creeping back up again but it’s still not as high as the emotional exhaustion they had experienced at ‘Time 1’. There’s still a respite effect.

At ‘Time 4’ however, around 4 weeks after the teacher’s vacation, emotional exhaustion levels are back to the levels of ‘Time 1’.


You might be thinking – well, what’s the point of going on holiday if only a few weeks later to return to the same level of emotional exhaustion?

If you didn’t have this drop, you would mostly likely be experiencing prolonged activation.

Holidays are the moments that protect us from slipping into burnout syndrome and experiencing emotional exhaustion.

The dip in Figure 1. is crucial if we want to maintain long-term psychological as well as physical health.

Sure, a few weeks will pass after we get back from our holiday and we will bounce back to high levels of exhaustion.

But it is the holidays that make sure we fully recover because otherwise our bodies become damaged by stress hormones.

What You Can Do to Prevent
Burnout and Emotional Exhaustion

Research on vacation studies suggests that you shouldn’t procrastinate on taking a well-deserved and probably much needed holiday to relax and recover from workplace hassles and responsibilities.

It is important that we give ourselves regular chances to recover by going on holidays.

Even short and regular holidays will do the trick. Depending on your levels of exhaustion, you will need shorter or longer breaks from the workplace.

I have friends who work long months at a time and run themselves into the ground until they mysteriously disappear for 3 weeks and come back as new men and women.

So do yourself a favour – take a break if you need one.

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Develop a Tolerance for Uncertainty and Ambiguity

In the absence of short-term rewards, uncertainty starts to creep in.

We start doubting our abilities and we start questioning our work.

As humans, we are very averse to uncertainty.

And the confusion and ambiguity that comes with it.

Naturally, whenever we encounter any uncertainty, we strive to eliminate it as soon as possible.

According to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, living in uncertainty is uncomfortable because it registers as pain in the brain.

Uncertainty and ambiguity also increase cognitive load because of worry and rumination.

If we don’t have a straight answer or solution, we may start to worry and ruminate.

Too much of this perseverative cognition can have disastrous effects on your work performance and overall well-being.

But these effects extend far beyond the workplace.

The poisonous effect of worry and rumination as a result of uncertainty can bleed into your leisure time. This places you under unnecessary psychological strain.

This is why we have a natural need to have a definite answer to a question – anything opposed to confusion or ambiguity.

Social scientists call this the need for cognitive closure.

Granted, Olivia notes that some people handle uncertainty better – and entrepreneurs happen to be some of those people – but we are generally averse to uncertainty.

It is important to ween yourself of the traditional short-term reward system, or at least learn not be over reliant on the steady trickling stream praise, recognition, validation, or incentives (for some people any sort of progress is contingent on these rewards.)

Because sure, the beginning of any project is exciting and extremely rewarding.

You’re inspired, commitment levels are at their peak, you’re garnering support from friends, family, and colleagues.

You have a clear vision, things are progressing quickly and smoothly.

But then, suddenly, rewards become more scarcer than before.

There are often no signs of progress.

You’re not garnering the regular support that you used to.

Your motivation may start waning.

You may have reached the Dip.

And the Dip is a breeding ground for uncertainty. It fills you with paralysing self-doubt.

In time of uncertainty or ambiguity, just be aware that over time you will gain more clarity as the situation settles itself.

Persevere. Keep going.

Have a note, a picture, a mantra, a screensaver – something that will bring you ground you and bring you back to centre, remind you what are you doing this for.

Bring the gist of your mission to the forefront of your mind.

Don’t let the short-term period of ambiguity and uncertainty derail your long-term vision.

Your dream.

Trust Your Instincts

In the first chapter of his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman introduces the concept of the high-road and the low-road in the brain.

Think of the low-road as a super fast link in your brain that processes information before your high-road can rationalise and add meaning to it.

Imagine that you’re being introduced to someone and you pick up on the slightest hint of negativity exuded by your new acquaintance.

Your low-road picks up on this via body language, tone or visual cues, and processes this information.

In response to this freshly processed bundle of information, your body responds by flooding itself with stress hormones and with an elevated heart beat.

The first impression has been made and there is a visceral reaction that occurs in response to this first impression.

Your body remembers and your unconscious registers this.

No amount of high-road rationalising after the fact – no matter how fair and genuine – can take it away and undo its effects.


From an evolutionary perspective, all of your body and mind’s systems have developed and survived because they have helped your ancestors in the passing of their genes forward to future generations.

A fear of heights was passed along your lineage because it helped your ancestors survive.

The evolutionary branches that didn’t have a fear of heights were more likely to get really close to the edge of a ridge for lack of fear to prevent them from doing so, and likely fell to their deaths before passing along on their fearless genes.

The low-road is one of the oldest and therefore most developed systems in our brains. If we apply the above reasoning to our instincts and the low-road, you can follow the argument in a similar way.

Your instincts were developed to help you survive.

This includes helping your ancestors avoid treacherous people in their tribes, being risk averse in social settings so as not be ostracised by the group or having a knack for identifying opportunities that would promote survival.

Your own instincts are the result of not only your personal experiences but an iterative honing and perfecting of hundreds of thousands of years that lead to the collective survival and passing of successful traits onto you.

It can be argued that it’s the most sophisticated survival system that you have to keep you alive and well.

And so when you get a funny feeling about something or someone that tries to convince you of something that doesn’t feel right to you, what should you do?

You should listen to your gut.

Get in tune with your instincts and understand that they’re there for a reason, and have generations of survival knowledge behind them working for you.

And by honing them yourself, you’re paying it forward to future generations.

There’s lots of talk about the importance of authenticity and self-awareness in leading not only the most successful life for yourself, but one that is aligned with your core being that will lead to a life well lived.

Embrace the collective intelligence within you and trust yourself to go out there and be the best you.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

When Socialising Fails

In this fourth part of my series of articles on recovery from work, you will learn:

– Why socialising might not be the best thing for your recovery from work.

The best recovery experiences

In a previous post, I talked a bit about what constitutes a great resource-replenishing activity.

According to Sonnentag (2001), resource-replenishing activities include:

– Social activities (e.g. meeting up with friends),
– Low-effort activities (e.g. watching TV),
– Physical exercise.

Sometimes though, low-effort activities might not be the best thing (read here).

But it turns out that socialising after work might not be the best thing for recovery.

Especially for people who work in customer service (e.g. flight attendants, teachers, or call centre employees).

When socialising fails

One study conducted by Sonnentag and Natter (2004) investigated recovery processes in flight attendants.

They investigated whether social activities during their leisure time was beneficial for their recovery from work.

In the study, it was found that engaging in social activities after work while staying at a hotel was linked to higher levels of depression in the flight attendants.

Now generally, social activities are beneficial for successful recovery (Sonnentag, 2001).

For flight attendants however, social activities during leisure time further draw on their resources.

Social activities after work further call upon work-related functional systems.

This is in line with the Effort-Resource Model mentioned in a previous post

It is well known that flight attendants travel the globe and spend a lot of their off-job time in hotels with their colleagues from work.

So they spend the majority of their leisure time with colleagues.

Oftentimes, colleagues aren’t always close enough people for you to be able to totally let loose and be yourself.

Even with colleagues, you have to posture a bit.

Only with close friends can you relax because you know that they have fully accepted you for who you are.

So if a flight attendant spends his/her 9-5pm catering to the needs of other people (i.e. passengers) and then goes on to spend his/her evening with colleagues – the functional system of “being nice” is constantly being used.

It does not recover.

This is quite common for people working in service-related professions (e.g. flight attendant, teacher, employee in a call centre).

Serviced-related employees face particularly high emotion work demands. In other words, their work requires emotional labour.

Kenneth Lu via Flickr

Here is a definition of emotional labor by Morris and Feldman (1996):

“Emotional labour is defined as effort, planning, and control needed to express organisational desired emotion during interpersonal interaction.”

In some way, emotional labour is “faking” emotion.

That is, flight attendants often have to portray themselves as happy people – even when they might not necessarily be feeling that way.

Interestingly, a high-degree of emotion work has been found to be related to poor well-being (Sonnentag and Fritz, 2015).

Sonnentag and Natter (2004) practical implications:

It is important that people find out which activities are most beneficial to them and which improve their well-being.

In the flight attendant experiment, it was also found that physical exercise demonstrated positive effects, regardless of the fact that their job is physical already. 

The researchers reasoned that going to the gym after work is a different type of physical activity compared to standing and walking in the aircraft while catering to passenger’s needs.

Thus, physical activities seem to be a very efficient way to regulate one’s well-being during off-job time.

Physical activities, even for short periods, has positive effects on well-being, particularly on vigour and low depression.

For flight attendants better find social activities that help them regain resources rather than further deplete them (spend time with close friends, call family etc).

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.