How taking time off can benefit your mental health

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When it comes to using paid time off, many Americans just don’t do it. In part, that’s because of a major cultural narrative that hard work will allow you to reach your goals.

“That narrative has really ground us into this workaholic sort of mentality,” says Dr. Alex Melkumian, LMFT and Psy. D. “It actually became cool to work 24/7, to be available via email all the time.”

But this lifestyle has plenty of drawbacks and may negatively impact your mental health. Taking a vacation is an important way to practice self care, whether you’re planning a long trip abroad or a three-day staycation.

Here’s a look at how taking paid time off can benefit your mental health and actually make you a better employee.

Why your mental health needs a vacation

Even before the pandemic forced people to stay at home, workers weren’t great about taking time off. A 2019 Bankrate survey found that only 38 percent of Americans with paid vacation days planned on using all of them. And according to the U.S. Travel Association, Americans forfeited 236 million vacation days in 2018, which is equivalent to $65.5 billion in lost benefits.

Work and life can be full of daily struggles, and “chronic stress negatively impacts our physical, emotional and mental health,” says Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, LMSW and a financial therapist.

Unfortunately, the negative impacts of stress increased during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. About 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2020 and 2021, up from 1 in 10 in 2019.

A vacation may counteract the effects of stress and potentially help improve your mental health. Here’s why.

Vacations engage your senses

When you’re immersed in a different environment, all of your senses are heightened — especially if you’re experiencing a different culture. Engaging your senses generally helps lower your stress, says Wendy Wright, LMFT and financial therapist.

On vacation, “you are constantly engaging and bombarding your five senses, so it allows new thought loops and you get a different perspective,” Wright says. Breaking out of a repetitive mindset may help you cope with stress or a difficult situation in a healthier way.

Vacations may strengthen relationships

Even with Zoom chats and phone calls, the physical distance from others left many feeling disconnected during the pandemic. A vacation provides an opportunity to strengthen the important relationships in your life, whether you’re taking a trip with friends or family members. And as COVID-19 cases are falling and more people are vaccinated, the ability to safely travel with others is growing.

Vacations can increase your creative thinking

If you’re often stuck in a decision-making loop that’s on repeat every day at work, then you’re only using some of your skills. It’s a lot like the quarantine many are experiencing, “which is why it has felt boring and also despairing; it’s so repetitive,” Wright says.

But on vacation, engaging different parts of your brain kick-starts the creative process and helps you “re-enter work with some fresh ideas,” Wright says.

Taking trips increases your adaptability

Adaptable workers are flexible and can adjust to change with a positive mindset, making it a highly desirable trait in any employee or manager. Taking trips can improve that skill because “it gets us out of our norm,” Melkumian says. “You’re being immersed in something completely different, especially if you’re traveling to a place that’s very different from where you usually live.”

For example, visiting a different country may expose you to a new language, culture, transportation system and social environment. Navigating those challenges helps you become more adaptable and can increase your self-esteem.

Reasons you should take your PTO

Workers in the private industry receive an average of 15 paid vacation days after five years of service, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While some companies allow their workers to roll over the accrued PTO, others have a use-it-or-lose-it policy.

“From a financial standpoint, you should take your PTO because otherwise, you aren’t taking advantage of an earned benefit,” Bryan-Podvin says. “It’s just as silly to not take PTO as it is to tell your boss, ‘No thanks, I don’t really want that raise.’”

In addition to the financial reasons to take PTO, there are other reasons it could be a good idea.

Taking PTO may lead to a promotion

Employees often feel they need to work long hours to pull ahead in their careers, especially if they’re just starting out. But that doesn’t help you with efficiency, effectiveness or creativity. Instead, overworking yourself can lead to burnout and seriously drain your productivity.

Vacation helps you avoid burnout because the time away allows you to refresh your mindset and develop problem-solving tools. It also helps you set boundaries and practice self-care at work. In fact, according to a Project: Time Off report, people who use all of their PTO days have a 6.5 percent higher chance of getting a promotion or a pay raise than people who only take a few days off each year.

Taking PTO may heal work anxiety

While it’s not a specific diagnosis, you might experience work anxiety if you’re constantly thinking about work, you’re worried your colleagues dislike you or you’re afraid of losing your job. Taking PTO can give you time away from the workplace — and the people in it — which can help you break out of these thought processes and deal with what’s behind them.

Planning your PTO is rewarding, too

During the pandemic, the monotony hasn’t given us much to look forward to — but planning a trip or a staycation gives you a sense of anticipation and purpose.

“When we anticipate something good happening, we get to live it in our minds again and again,” Bryan-Podvin says. “It also allows us to use our imagination and daydream, letting us tap into the creative side of our brains that don’t often get as much stimulation.”

Using PTO helps you recharge

Some vacations may not reduce stress at all because they involve long flights or too much stimulation. But a vacation is simply any time you break out of your normal routine, and it’s important to find a good balance for yourself. One study in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that you need eight consecutive days to really unplug from work and feel happy. If you don’t have eight days to spare or you just need a quick way to recharge, you could use a day or two of PTO to relax.

“I love a good staycation and believe that exploring where we live like tourists can make us feel more connected to our sense of home and community,” Bryan-Podvin says.

Bottom line

Getting time away from the daily grind is essential to your mental health, which is certainly something that should be prioritized.

It’s a good idea to know how much PTO you have and in what circumstances you could lose it.

If you’re self-employed, Wright suggests putting aside a certain amount of money every week to form your own PTO fund. But if you do work for someone else, Wright recommends talking with your manager about when to use your PTO and how to delegate tasks while you’re gone.

“Remember your priorities,” Melkumian says. “Your family, your friends, your mental well-being, your health. Things like that are more important than sticking it out for your employer.”

Written by
Kim Porter
Contributing writer
Kim Porter is a personal finance expert who loves talking budgets, credit cards and student loans. In addition to serving as a contributing writer for Bankrate, Porter also writes for publications such as U.S. News & World Report, Credit Karma and Reviewed.com. When she's not writing or reading, you can usually find her planning a trip or training for her next race.