Should Your Doctor Prescribe You A Holiday?

Should Your Doctor Prescribe You A Holiday?

As NHS social prescribing schemes are set to be rolled out across more of the UK, experts are calling for holidays to be included in the programmes for a whole host of conditions exacerbated by stress, from anxiety to high blood pressure. But is taking time off work really the answer to improving our health? And how can those who can’t afford exotic vacations prevent burnout? SL investigates…

Countless studies have shown just how important stress reduction is in the prevention of myriad diseases, and while many doctors have long advised patients to slow down, take a break or participate in certain activities to reduce their stress levels, it’s only this year some can officially prescribe them, thanks to the NHS’s trailblazing social prescription scheme – which recently benefitted from nearly £4.5m investment.

These activities can include anything from a walk in the park or a morning coffee in town to an art class at a local collage or even a dog walking club – not in the form of printed prescriptions, but through referrals to non-clinical services and community groups that help improve patients’ mental states, boost their social connections and generally enhance their overall wellbeing. And the scheme has been met with success so far – one UK study found that after three to four months, 80% of patients referred to a social prescribing scheme had reduced their use of A&A, outpatient appointments and inpatient admissions.

So why the case for adding holidays to the list? Researchers have proven taking vacation time is vital for both maintaining good mental health and preventing physical disease. This is because traveling promotes happiness and helps you take your mind off stressful situations, leading to lower levels of the principal stress hormone cortisol.

“We know that taking a break is extremely good for one’s mental health,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, who frequently writes about the benefits of holidays. “It puts you in a different frame of mind, gets you out of your standard patterns and can give you time with family.”

It also helps busy people hit refresh: in one survey, 94% of frequent travellers said they had as much or more energy after coming back after a good trip, and 55% who had a low-stress trip returned to work with even higher levels of energy than before.

And if you want to know just how bad not taking time off work really is for your health, the 1992 Framingham Heart Study, which tracked US workers over 20 years and still stands as the gold standard for long-term health studies, gives an idea. It found that women were a whopping 50% more likely to have a heart attack if they didn’t take time off work, and men 20% more likely. These numbers even held true when researchers considered other health factors like diabetes, cigarette smoking, income levels and obesity (the conclusions have also been backed up by other more recent research studies).

Taking regular holidays doesn’t just benefit employees, but businesses too – although Western European workers have far more time off than in the US, our holiday policies haven’t been found to affect productivity.

As therapist and author of How Does That Make You Feel?, Sherry Amatenstein, explains, all research points in the same direction – those who don’t take time off are “sicker, less productive, stressed, and more anxious and depressed”, which affects their work as well. “Vacation is essential to reset and remind yourself that career is not the be-all and end-all. There are other facets to a healthy existence,” she says.

The key to reaping the health benefits of a holiday appears to lie in both the length and location – proving that a weekend of R&R on the sofa just isn’t the same when it comes to switching off. One study, conducted by Finland’s University of Tampere and published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, found that the ideal holiday length for reducing work-related stress is seven to 11 days long.
Researchers said this was likely because employees are often unable to recover sufficiently during short breaks from work due to “increasingly permeable boundaries between work and home domains, long working hours, working overtime and prolonged physiological activation as a result of preoccupation with work”. Their results showed that health and wellness rapidly increased after the start of the holiday and seemed to peak on the eighth day.

Another US study showed that exposure to foreign travel brought even more benefits too: visiting new countries was linked to greater directed attention – the kind of focused mental energy we need on a daily basis in order to function well at work. The more countries people visited and the greater they were immersed in the local culture, the more this effect was enhanced.

Add a body of water to the mix and holidays have even more health-boosting powers (beachside vacation, here we come). Michael Depledge, Chair of Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School, who has been studying the effects of ‘blue environments’ for a decade, has found there’s a clear correlation between close proximity to a body of water and better

He says spending time near the water “promotes physical activity and general fitness”, thus reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and other diseases associated with obesity; slows down our heart rate and reduces stress hormones; and boosts our mental health, which Depledge calls “the second great epidemic we’re facing” (the World Health Organization expects depression to become the world’s largest contributor to disease by 2030).

Good news for those who aren’t jetting off too – you can still reap the benefits here in Blighty by having a ‘staycation’. Whether that’s heading down to one of Britain’s beaches, or simply playing tourist in your own city, visiting new galleries, parks, boutiques and bookshops.

And if you needed any more convincing to book some time off, look to this year’s World Happiness Report, where the likes of Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland – all Nordic countries where taking holiday time is encouraged, and employees are offered several weeks of it a year – topped the list (just remember to turn those work email notifications off).

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