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We Need Play-cations, Not Just Vacations

09/06/2010 11:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Labor Day Weekend--the last weekend of summer before we plunge into fall. Hurricane Earl swept up the East Coast, missing us, but bringing cold biting winds that, even amid the bright sunlight, seemed a signal that summer--vacation season--is ebbing and it is back to work we go.

That is, if we ever left work. Work, as we all know, can be all-the-time, every-place. A special study on overwork by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) reveals that that one in three of all U.S. employees can be considered chronically overworked.

I know the facts about vacations from the FWI's nationally representative study, the 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, and they tell an interesting story.
Fact 1: Not all us have access to a paid vacation: 79% of American employees receive paid vacation time from their employers.

Fact 2: On average, we are entitled to a little more than two weeks off (16 paid days). Half of the U.S. workforce receives fewer than 15 days.

Fact 3: Even when we are entitled to vacations, not everyone takes all of the days he or she has: 39% of us don't use our full vacations. Americans use an average of 13.5 days of vacation per year.

Fact 4: The longest amount of time we take off at one time averages nine days. One in four of us (24%) takes five days or fewer for his or her longest vacation, while 23% take more than 13 days.

Fact 5: Taking a longer vacation (13 consecutive days or more, including weekends or holidays) bodes well for our health. Those employees who take longer vacations are less likely to have minor health problems on a regular basis, depression, sleep problems or to feel stressed.

These are the facts, but they don't tell us much about what happens during vacations. Many of us work while on vacations. It seemed almost standard practice this summer to receive a bounce-message to an email I had sent that read: "I am on vacation and don't have access to email and voice mail," only to receive a response from that person within a few hours. Still others of us take work on vacations or plan vacations that can be viewed as an extension of our work.

So over this past weekend--a busman's holiday for me for sure--I asked a number of people: "what makes a vacation renew and re-energize you?" Here are some of their responses:

They take us away from our usual lives. I know from my research on children for my book, Mind in the Making, how energizing having new experiences can be for children and adults--they heighten our senses; they stimulate our curiosity; and they make us want to explore. Even when that new place is a familiar place, being away from our daily routines is refreshing. For one woman I spoke with, it was not having to cook, do the dishes, go to work, and go to the gym: "it was permission to have fun."

They give us time to think and see things in new ways. A man took a vacation that was a workshop related to his work, but found that he had the time to learn new things so it felt differently than a similar workshop might have felt during the year.

We have freedom to go with the flow: A woman who planned her vacation carefully for her husband and children loved the opportunity to change plans at the last minute and to follow their interests.

They are pressure-free or at least pressure-different. Obviously, vacations can have their own pressures--the kids who say "Are we there yet;" the plans to go camping or to the beach that are thwarted by a storm; the schedule of activities that can seem rigid; or the car that breaks down and has to be towed. I have had all of these experiences, but it is a different kind of pressure than the daily pressures we face. One man talked about working very hard on his vacation, but still he felt free of the expectations he usually puts on himself or that others put on him.

When my children were little, they always called vacations, "play-cations." As I was listening to the people talk about what makes vacations renew them, I flashed back to my children's word. Yes, the best vacations are like the best play of children--they give us an opportunity to explore, to have fun, to learn, to go with the flow, and to be in moment. So we need play-cations, not just vacations!

An addendum: As I was writing this, I got an email from a friend. She was in an airport en route home from her vacation, which she said was beautiful. Then she wrote, "I really dread re-entering my life." Her challenge is the challenge of so many of us. We need to find ways of bringing play-cations back from our vacations and keeping them--to whatever extent we can--in our regular lives at work and at home.