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Is your mind on vacation?

July 26, 2011
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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Mine recently was. And, will be again shortly.

I am in-between two summer vacations. I’ve always thought vacations to be essential for maintaining whatever mental health I had. For me, that meant vacations as separate from work as possible: on-call as little as practical, no e-mails, and trying not to check in.

I also usually tried to plan vacations well in advance and enjoyed that process for itself; as I did the planning, it seemed to begin to reduce the stress that I had been accumulating. I also try to leave one day open on return to begin to catch up; usually, one gets “punished” in some way upon return.

I think that I’m more productive and creative on return to work. Maybe even more importantly, these vacations are a time to be with my wife and immerse ourselves together in travel and culture. A less frequent kind of vacation is a family one with our children and grandchildren. These vacations have a different purpose. Although they involve more “work” on the vacation in order to try to make everyone happy, the rewards of family unity, cohesion, and understanding can be priceless.

Of course, all this gushing about the value of my vacations could be my rationalization and/or attempt to relieve my guilt about being away. Certainly, others at time have thought so. On and off, I’ve been accused of taking too much vacation. At the very least, I’ve usually tried to take every bit of time officially available to me.

Nowadays, the desire to take vacation time is challenged by the demands for more productivity at my job, in our field, and in the USA workforce in general. Many employees my be fearful of the consequences—real or fantasied—of being away.

So, is it still worth it to try to take as much vacation as possible, I began to wonder even more seriously? Soon, I was reveling in the memories of prior vacations, but was caught short as I read about the life of the Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe who led their world-wide expansion in the last half of the 20th century. I read that his followers here in Wisconsin reveled that during his 44 years of leadership, he did not take a single vacation day. Maybe, I wondered, I just did not have enough faith.

As I read on, I found out that the Rebbe was reported to have had colds, chronic coughing, and then a massive heart attack in at the age of 75 in 1977. Even so, after intensive in-home medical treatment, he continued to be very productive until suffering a stroke in 1992, then dying at the age of 92 in 1994.

After serendipitously reading this, I was still left wondering. How important is vacation for everyone? Is it a matter of faith and /or science? Is there actual data or research that would help to answer these questions? Here is what I found.

The History of Vacations

There doesn’t seem to be much mention of vacations in historic religious texts. Prior to industrialization, agricultural and hunting societies seemed to have built-in vacations due to the natural cycles n nature. Even so, most religions designated at least one day a week for rest.

Early in our country’s history, the wealthy took vacations for health reasons more than for fun. Usually they went to spas for “cures”.

Then, the Industrial Revolution came and the plight of the over-worked workers gradually received attention. Paid vacation started in the USA and Europe in the 1930s, with relatively similar policies.

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Companies I have worked for in the past are very supportive of vacation time. I dare say in the mental health and substance abuse industry, most people are highly driven and are not eager to take sick time or vacation time. As a form of "life balance" I promote the use of vacation time for my employees. Approximately 4 weeks of vacation time are given each year in addition to personal days, spiritual days, jury duty and holiday pay. A portion can be sold, but not all of it, because our facility and the larger healthcare system realize the importance of time needed to renew and recharge. Our employees are our customers, just as our patients are, so we want to support and care for them with the same quality of care we support our patients with.

Wellness is a prominent buzz word these days, especially with the upcoming changes in healthcare. Wellness is no longer defined as being free from illness, but as taking preventative measures to remain healthy, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This coincides with the comments regarding "mini-vacations" in the work day. Promoting meditation time, taking a brisk walk with co-workers after lunch, or listening to relaxing music between patients, can all add to health and wellbeing. A little vacation in the day makes for better productivity, and less stress.

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H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...