Here’s How Often You Need To Vacation To Prevent Premature Death, Says Overwhelming Research

Updated: Mar. 01, 2024

You'll want to pre-schedule your OOO message when you read this: Americans work hard—but recent research makes it clear we need to play harder, too.

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A study from the US Travel Association found that 768 million vacation days went unused back in 2018, and more recent data shows that the average American left 9.5 vacation days on the table in 2021. While it may just seem like a few extra days at your desk here and there, consequences can creep up on you over time.

“Not taking time off from work to go on vacation or simply rest can lead to overwork and burnout,” says Joyce Marter, LCPC, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life. Marter points to a recent World Health Organization study that found overwork and burnout contributed to more than 745,000 deaths in just one year. For context, that’s more than twice the number of Americans who died from COVID-19 in 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

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Here’s why vacations are essential to health

“Just like athletes need built-in breaks from physical exercise, vacations are vital to health as they break the cycle of stress,” Erin Engle, PsyD, a psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Stress is a normal part of life, and while there are ways to manage stress, dealing with it day in and day out with no end in sight takes a serious toll on your body. Stress can ruin your dental health, cause digestive issues, increase cervical cancer risk, and raise your blood pressure…just to name a few.

In fact, research—such as a February 2023 study published in Molecular Psychiatry—links chronic stress with an increased risk of most chronic diseases, mental health conditions, and even cognitive problems like impaired memory and learning ability. Dr. Engle adds: “Chronic stress takes its toll on our ability to stay engaged and be productive, resist infection, and sleep can suffer.”

Too much stress spells out trouble for your heart, too. “A long work week, defined as greater than 55 hours a week, is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying of a heart attack,” explains Gioia Turitto, MD, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. “Workaholics are also more likely to have a ‘type A’ personality, which is a well-known risk factor for heart issues.”

Additionally, says Rekha Kumar, MD, Chief Medical Officer at weight care program, Found, and practicing endocrinologist in New York City, a 2021 study suggested adults with high stress are 45% more likely to have metabolic syndrome—a group of symptoms that increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions.

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How often should you vacation?

A 40-year study conducted by the European Society of Cardiology found that people who take less than three weeks of vacation time a year have a 37% greater risk of premature death. Here’s the real kicker: This elevated risk is in spite of living an otherwise healthy lifestyle.

The study, which began in 1974, initially set out to measure how someone’s risk of heart disease changes due to lifestyle interventions, such as prescribed exercise routines, nutritional guidance, and smoking cessation. After five years, the researchers found that participants following the heart health program (the “intervention group”) had a 46% lower risk of heart disease.

But after a 15-year follow-up, the researchers encountered a surprising trend: Premature death rates had risen among the intervention group faster than in the control group. A recent analysis of the data found one common thread to explain this inconsistency: Even though participants in the intervention group were following a healthier overall lifestyle, they were taking less time off work.

The study suggests that three weeks of vacation is the magic number—but the experts explain it’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast rule. For instance, Dr. Kumar points to another study that shows people who spread out two weeks of annual vacation time over five short breaks had a 24% lower risk of metabolic syndrome. Even long weekends can be seriously beneficial, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It found people who took a four-day vacation experienced improved stress levels for a month after returning from their time off.

Still, while at least three weeks away from work annually may be ideal, the experts emphasize that any time off does you good. “According to one survey, an overwhelming majority of U.S. employees have shortened, postponed or canceled their vacation time over the past three years,” Marter says. “People should use all the vacation time and [paid time off] allotted to them—and sick days should also be used, they can be used for mental health days when feeling stressed or overwhelmed.”

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How to take more time off

For those of us letting the year go by without much of a break, Dr. Engle recommends two approaches: Taking regular self-assessments of your “battery level” to understand when a vacation is needed and learning to give yourself permission to take a break.

“A self-assessment helps you get a more accurate appraisal of the current impact of work stress and related demands,” she says. Acknowledging that you’re not able to focus, struggling to meet deadlines, experiencing symptoms of burnout, or simply can’t remember your last vacation can inform this need to recharge.

“It can also be helpful to challenge extreme, inaccurate negative thoughts” that either keep you from taking a much-needed break or limit the benefits of a vacation, she says. (This could mean thoughts like, “if I miss a day, I’ll never catch up.”) She says to reframe these thought patterns, like acknowledging how a task may not get done at your preferred pace, but you’ll enjoy the process more when refreshed—or that vacation days allow you to be productive in other areas, like personal growth and leisure.

Vacation time isn’t a cure-all, either, Dr. Kumar adds. “Overall, the health benefits of vacation time can likely be found in other stress-lowering activities, too, which is why it’s so important to find ways to integrate those types of activities into your daily life,” she says. “Whether it’s exercise, meditation, massages—finding a way to reduce stress on a regular basis will have short and long-term positive impacts on your health.”

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