A healthy self-care routine is going to save you more stress in the long-term than any amount of vacation time.
Of course this doesn’t mean that vacations are bad or pointless – we all need a break every now and then from our work and obligations.
A refreshing 1-2 week break can help us recharge, spend more quality time with family, explore new places, and put life into perspective. There’s more to life than work and we shouldn’t forget that.
If you’re going to spend money on yourself, studies show buying experiences (such as traveling the world, or going to a new restaurant, or going skydiving) is often better for long-term happiness than buying stuff (like a new TV or car).
When you buy an experience such as a vacation, that’s a memory that’s going to last forever. When you spend money on nice material things, the novelty often wears off quickly.
Indeed, even planning a vacation can give us a healthy sense of anticipation – something to look forward to during those long and tedious days at home or in the office. You think, “That was a tough day at work…but at least I’m going to the Bahamas next month!” Having something to look forward to can help push us through hard times.
From a mental health perspective, vacations are valuable but not a cure-all. Too many people work themselves to the bone with the assumption that it will all be worth it once they finally earn some vacation time (or even retire).
We shouldn’t put our mental health on hold for some hypothetical future.
While research confirms that vacations can significantly lower levels of stress and burnout, these benefits can also be short-lived. According to a Work and Well-Being survey published a couple years ago by The Harris Poll:
“Taking time off helps the majority of U.S. workers recover from stress and experience positive effects that improve their well-being and job performance, but for nearly two-thirds of working adults, the benefits of time away dissipate within a few days…”
In fact, nearly a quarter (24%) of working adults say the positive effects of vacation time – such as more energy and feeling less stress – disappear immediately upon returning to work.
Vacations are only a temporary fix when it comes to managing stress and mental health.
From an organizational standpoint, businesses must be willing to build a work environment that not only encourages taking time off, but also gives employees opportunities to relax and recharge on a daily basis.
That includes a healthy work environment with supportive relationships (among bosses, managers, and employees), effective work-life policies and practices, permitting small breaks throughout the day, and fostering cultural values such as fairness, autonomy, trust, and a sense of belonging or purpose. Vacations are just one piece of a much larger puzzle.
From an individual standpoint, you also have to take responsibility for your daily habits and routine, including both physical health (exercise, diet, and sleep) and mental health (managing stress, leisure time, relationships, etc.)
At the end of the day, self-care is our responsibility. A smart company can help teach and promote greater self-care by providing seminars, having coaches or counselors available, or by sending informational emails/handouts, but at the end of the day you’re either taking proper care of yourself – or you’re not.
The truth is: if you’re not sleeping, exercising, eating healthy, and relaxing on a daily basis – then you take a one month vacation and go back to your old routine – you have fixed exactly zero problems.
Daily self-care triumphs everything, no vacation is going to be able to reverse an unhealthy routine.
This is why I think of my life in terms of long-term systems rather than short-term goals. I’m not working to earn a “mental health day,” every day is a mental health day. This is how you build sustainability into your life.
I’m reminded of the popular Seth Godin quote, “Instead of wondering where your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” While that may sound a bit extreme, that’s my general philosophy and approach to life.
For example, there are several tiny mental habits I practice every single day to make sure I’m moving in the right direction and taking care of myself.
Every morning I…
- Reflect on one thing I’m grateful for.
- Identify one strength of mine.
- Reframe one negative thought.
The whole process takes less than 5 minutes, but those minutes are precious. I even added these simple habits to my daily habit tracker to make sure I never forget to do them.
I also practice my multi-stage meditation twice per week (although I may eventually try turning it into a daily habit). Meditation in particular has been shown to have many mental health benefits. One interesting study even found that a 15 minute meditation can have a similar effect as a day of vacation.
Brick by brick, I’m laying a strong foundation of mental health; but it doesn’t happen overnight, you have to dedicate time to self-care every day.
Keep in mind, I’ve been improving and tweaking my daily routine for over a decade now. If it sounds like I do a lot, it’s only because I’ve added these small habits slowly and gradually over-time.
You have to start small and keep building. Just adding ONE of the habits mentioned above would be a significant step in the right direction. Which one would be easiest for you to start with?
Every day is a “mental health day” if you make self-care a part of your daily routine.
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