This year, Thanksgiving was an opportunity to take it easy. During the week of Thanksgiving, I ate (of course), watched football (including the NFL’s first-ever Black Friday game), and spent time with family. In fact, I spent virtually all of Thanksgiving Day at my oldest brother’s house, enjoying great food and quality time with him, my sister-in-law, my older sister, and nieces and nephews. What I did not do was work.
For the first time in months, days went by without any major projects. Between Wednesday, Nov. 22, and Friday, Nov. 24, I did virtually no work. I didn’t write articles for my first job or complete any of the (overdue) online trainings for my second job. Nor did I write about any of the football games I watched. As Thanksgiving weekend approached, I began to feel guilty — there were a million things that needed to be done during this off-time and I was doing next to nothing. Why wasn’t I using my time more productively? Why wasn’t I accomplishing more? Taking a day or two off when there was so much to do felt wrong, somehow.
But taking time off is essential — especially during an often-stressful holiday season. The holidays can be a source of comfort and joy, but they can also be fraught with worry and stress. The American Psychological Association said last month that 41% of Americans say their stress increases during the holidays. Most of that stress is financial: 58% of U.S. adults say that spending too much or not having enough money to spend causes them seasonal stress. This can push people to work even harder during the holidays. When you’re already low on funds, calling in to work can feel like financial malpractice. And the pressure to perform can be particularly hard for Black Americans, who face higher unemployment and lower wages.
Federal employees get the day off, and it appears that a lot of civilians do, too: a 2018 YouGov Omnibus study showed that just 17% of respondents planned to work on Thanksgiving (though 35% said they’d work on Black Friday). But even when not working, many employees feel compelled to check work emails/messages and have trouble unplugging. A YouGov survey of 2,000 American workers (conducted on behalf of Slack) found that while 72% of managers/employers say they encourage employees to switch off during the holidays, 68% of employees have trouble switching off or stepping away from work.
Interestingly, 63% of American respondents said they’ll be available during the holidays because they feel guilty seeing others at work — versus only 36% of Germans and 22% of those in the U.K. In many ways, this seems to be a uniquely American problem: Americans are notorious workaholics, and the Center for Economic Policy has gone so far as to call the United States the “No Vacation Nation.”
The problem is especially hard for millennials like me: 76% of those aged 18-34 said they’ll be available during holidays because they have too much work to do (versus just 37% of employees 55 and up). But regardless of your age, race, or economic status, rest is imperative. The APA says that extended time off can increase life satisfaction, improve mental health, and reduce anxiety, depression and heart disease. Not giving yourself a respite from work can have dangerous consequences. A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that 745,000 people died in 2016 from heart disease and stroke due to long hours and said the trend could worsen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thankfully, your risk can be lowered with just a few days’ break. Even a short three-day leisure trip can reduce cortisol, a stress hormone. And researchers found that taking time off from work can help curb habits that disrupt sleep (like working late into the night or checking your phone before bed). Ultimately, break time can even help you be more productive. “When your brain is completely relaxed, it consolidates knowledge and brainpower,” writes Forbes senior contributor Caroline Castrillon. She adds that this is why we often have some of our best ideas on a walk, in the shower or on vacation.
Maybe during Christmas, I’ll take Castrillon’s advice: “Don’t be a vacation slacker. Time off is linked to a slew of benefits, including better sleep and improved mental health. So, what are you waiting for? Put the guilt aside and plan your next holiday. Your body and mind will thank you.”