While the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way most people travel, it’s also changed the way we work—something that has long driven travel choices among vacation-time-averse Americans.
Working days are longer, emails are more frequent, and getting away from work responsibilities has become harder as “work from home” has blurred the lines between home and workplace. In fact, the average work day lengthened by 49 minutes during the pandemic, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, and AAA has estimated that 33 percent of vacation days were left behind by American workers in 2020. Now, a newly released cumulative study of workers with long hours suggests a growing number of people have a dangerously unhealthy work habit; one that was there even before the pandemic made those conditions worse.
In a first-of-its-kind global study, the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labor Organization (ILO) looked at the long-term effects of long working hours (defined as 55 or more hours per week) and found that deaths from work-related heart disease and stroke increased by 29 percent between 2000 and 2016; work-related stress from overwork now kills 745,000 people per year. The regions with the largest slices of their population working those long hours, the study found, are primarily in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific—although four percent of the U.S. is estimated to work 55 or more hours per week. The study concluded that sustained 55-plus-hour work weeks resulted in physical health problems later in life.
At the heart of the new research is the remote state of offices around the world. “The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, when announcing the findings last month. “Teleworking has become the norm in many industries… No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers, and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers.”
WHO official Dr. Maria Neira also addressed the consensus around longer work days when the agency announced its findings. “Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” said Neira, Director of WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health. “It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death”.
The findings join a mounting body of research that serves as an urgent reminder that time off from work is not a perk, but a necessity to both physical and mental health. In the early days of the pandemic, vacation researchers at Finland’s Tampere University released a study that suggests regular and sustained vacation time is key to basic mental health, and that time off must meet certain criteria, including truly unplugging from work communications. The study, which analyzed a group of German workers’ mental health over several years, both at work and on vacations, found that the two most paramount conditions for rest and recovery are “detachment” from work and “relaxation,” which the researchers say go hand-in-hand. Essentially, no matter what you're doing on vacation or with your time off, it should be completely separate of work responsibilities—and feel restful.
“Traveling helps often with detachment, because you are usually physically away from your usual surroundings and all the cues that bring work to your mind such as alarm clocks or the outfit you wear at work… [and] taking days off regularly, rather than only once per year, is beneficial for well-being,” says Miika Kujanpaa, who co-authored the study. “I think that [breaks] and recovery have probably become even more important than before, during a global pandemic.” The study determined that those who successfully detached from work emails for about one week at a time experienced the highest levels of mental well-being.
The mental-health effects of a vacation are strong but also “short-lived, and disappear rapidly after work resumption,” the vacation study found, making breaks from work important to take regularly. Within the first week of returning from a trip stress levels spike again. And the study showed that a trip over one-week long is most ideal; previous vacation studies by Tempere University have shown that mental health improvement peaks on day eight of a vacation.
“When the body does not have an opportunity to ‘calm down’ for a long while, this can lead to problems such as headaches and sleep problems, and in the long run even to burnout and illness.” Kujanpaa says, noting that stress hormones are typically triggered by sustained work responsibilities.
And thanks to the WHO and ILO, we now know just how serious those potential physical illnesses can be in the long-run. So given that health experts say it’s safer to travel, why not spend all your vacation time this year making up for lost relaxation? Just make sure to turn that ‘out of office’ on.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler