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.
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?
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.
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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