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Don’t leave millions of vacation days on the table

Use it or lose it.

For workers lucky enough to receive paid time off, that phrase is shorthand for corporate policies that don’t allow employees to carry unused PTO days into the next year.

During the coronavirus pandemic, it also carries a mental health warning.

Time away from work — even if you don’t go anywhere — is more important than ever in managing stress and maintaining a sense of well-being.

And despite the shutdowns that have scuttled travel plans for a sizable chunk of 2020, many companies are sticking to their use-it-or-lose-it time off policies this year.

Even when there was someplace to go, Americans didn’t use it all. Some 768 million days of vacation time were left on the table in the United States in 2018, according to the US Travel Association.

Take. Those. Days.

Some people are beyond ready to bust out of the house for a weekend getaway — or more. For others, the stress of navigating the “new normal” doesn’t sound remotely relaxing.

The good news? Experts say the benefits of being away from work are pretty similar whether you leave town or not.

“Holidays during the coronavirus pandemic may sound crazy, because you cannot do many things that you love,” occupational psychologist Jessica de Bloom said via email. “But research into staycations shows that the effects of holidays at home hardly differ from holidays elsewhere.”

Time well spent

De Bloom, an associate professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Tampere University in Finland, studies the effects of leisure time on well-being.

She notes that taking time off work regularly is very important because, much like sleep, there’s no way to stockpile the positive effects of being away. In other words, two weeks off doesn’t offset working six months straight.

Detaching from work allows for recovery and relaxation. Having some autonomy over your time, mastering skills, finding meaning and affiliating with others are all part of what makes taking time off restorative, according to a framework around leisure time commonly cited in De Bloom’s field.

And regular doses of time off — even at home — cultivate these components of well-being in a time when pretty much everyone is struggling.

Still coming up short on ideas for PTO during a pandemic? Here are some ideas geared toward a variety of levels of leaving the house:

Vacation ideas to match your comfort level

A weekend away. For people in areas where the outbreak is more contained and restrictions have eased, getting away to a lake, beach or mountain destination might be a welcome change.

Hopping in your car for a short road trip is unlikely to involve much contact with other people. Mitigate risk by sanitizing surfaces, washing your hands frequently, wearing masks in public places and minimizing stops where you are likely to encounter others.

Lodging and dining away from home add some additional risks, so look up and ask about sanitation procedures in hotels or vacation rentals and consider bringing sanitizing supplies to bolster your confidence. Some vacation rentals are leaving a day or two between guest stays to minimize the risk of infection.

Camping is another good option, although some public campgrounds are offering limited facilities. Check on what amenities will be available.

You’ll also need to think through packing food or choosing spots with socially distanced, preferably outdoor dining options.

A day hike, waterside picnic or garden visit. If all of the above is already mentally draining, maybe you’re more in the market for a day trip without the added accommodation and dining considerations.

Botanical gardens such as the Atlanta Botanical Garden have adapted to the pandemic with limited capacity and other new procedures. Swimply, a pool rental service, could make finding an uncrowded swimming oasis easier.

A change of pace, at home. Detachment from work and other pressures of life is key. Where it happens is less important.

A DIY spa day could be a recipe for recovery.

Something as simple as a run or bike ride in nature can clear your head and provide benefit, De Bloom said.

Reserving a fixed time for yourself every day to do whatever you feel like doing also provides a sense of autonomy that bolsters well-being, she said.

Learn something new at home. Mastering skills during leisure time is another well-being booster. Taking an online course that you’ve wanted to do for a long time is a good option for time off work, De Bloom said.

Interest in language learning apps such as Duolingo and Babbel has surged during the pandemic, according to Forbes.

And the twitter of birdsong has sparked an avalanche of articles about bird watching. Binoculars plus some online who’s who sleuthing skills make for a surprisingly hypnotic — and educational — yard vacation.

For some people, researching a destination is a big part of the fun of travel. Even if visiting doesn’t feel right for now, you can dive into virtual trips and inspiration in places such as Paris and San Francisco.

Connect and find some meaning. Time that results in a sense of meaning or purpose is time well spent, according to research into how leisure time can translate into feelings of well-being.

Volunteering can be tricky right now, but local mutual aid organizations and nonprofits have opportunities to help out both in (socially distanced) person or remotely.

Closer to home, checking in on neighbors during your time off or organizing a neighborhood block party that everyone enjoys from their own front yard can offer both a sense of meaning and also provide the affiliation that experts say can be a component of restorative leisure time.

No, a socially distanced block party or a day at the lake is not a trip to Prague.

But the act of taking time away to detach from work and connect with other parts of your life is still possible — and more essential than ever — during a pandemic.

Take. Those. Days.

CNN

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