If workers in Germany, the richest country in Europe, can enjoy 40 days off a year, why do we Americans take only 17 days’ vacation?
Even with this miserly number, more than half of us don’t even use all the vacation days we’re entitled to, and – this kind of amazes me – one out of four don’t take any time off at all.1
Whatever the reasons for the difference (maybe because employees in every other advanced nation in the world have paid annual leave required by law), it’s vital to take a good break from work – your health and lifespan may depend on it.
Let’s look at the toll that overwork takes on your health. . .
The Heart of a Workaholic
An early study looking into the relationship between health and vacation time was led by Elaine Eaker who was working for the Centers for Disease Control back in 1992. The study included 749 women aged 45-64, free of coronary heart disease (CHD) at the start of the study.
Twenty years later, the findings were startling. Even with a large number of variables accounted for, people who took three or less vacations over the period were nearly eight times more likely to suffer a heart attack or to be diagnosed with CHD compared with those who took at least 40 vacations (two per year on average during the 20 year period).
Dr Eaker said, “It shows how the body reacts to a lifestyle of stress. This is real evidence that vacations are important to your physical health.”2
Eight years later another study focused on 12,000 men at high risk of CHD. Over a period of nine years, participants who took regular annual vacations saw their chances of dying from CHD and heart attack go down by 32% — nearly a third — compared to those going without. The study concluded: “Vacationing may be good for your health.”3
My translation: Don’t take statin drugs, take vacations. They’re approximately 30 times more effective.
In fact, stay with me here and I’ll show you that vacations appear to be more powerful “medicine” than diet and lifestyle changes when it comes to adding years to your life.
Stressful Lifestyles Make for Shorter Lives
Bringing us bang up to date was a presentation by Professor Timo Strandberg from the University of Helsinki, Finland at the recent conference of the European Society for Cardiology in Munich, Germany.
He briefed the attendees on a study of 1,222 middle-aged male executives that began in the 1970s. All the participants had at least one risk factor for heart disease. Half were treated with diet and lifestyle strategies and drugs if deemed appropriate, while the other half acted as controls, receiving no treatment.
Five years into the study, the intervention group saw a 46% lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to the controls. This was fully expected.
But events were to take a strange turn.
In 1989, after 15 years, there were more deaths among the intervention group than the control group. This continued to be the case until 2004 when death rates were the same in both groups and remained so until 2014.
Digging deep into the findings of the 40-year study, the puzzled researchers discovered the reason for the turnaround. Men in the intervention group took shorter vacations. Taking less than three weeks annual leave increased the risk of death by 37%.
Professor Strandberg explained: “In our study, men with shorter vacations worked more and slept less than those who took longer vacations. This stressful lifestyle may have overruled any benefit of the intervention. Vacations can be a good way to relieve stress.”
His important conclusion: “Don’t think having an otherwise healthy lifestyle will compensate for working too hard and not taking holidays.”4
Workaholics take note.