While Willina Thomas loves taking full-fledged vacations to see family in Florida or indulging her love of the beach, she also schedules a day off to do whatever she feels like: a quick trip out of town to visit friends in the Virginia tidewater, or to just hang out at home in Durham, getting caught up on chores and enjoying peace and quiet.
These short, one-day breaks with paid time off are a central piece of her self-care routine.
“I feel like it’s important, not only for my mind, body and spirit, but it also helps my employer because if I’m emotionally and physically exhausted, that’s going to have a negative impact on my work,” said Thomas, a certified medical assistant at the Duke Orthopaedics’ Arringdon clinic.
According to the U.S. Travel Association, American workers left an average of 4.6 days of paid time off on the table in 2021. Staff and faculty of Duke University and Duke University Health System can take advantage of their paid time off benefit, but if not used before maximum accrual limits are reached, some vacation hours may be lost.
With pandemic-related restrictions easing, it’s wise to begin looking into ways to use some time off accrued during the pandemic.
Caryn Christiano, a counselor with Duke’s Personal Assistance Service, recommends self-care practices such as taking time off for a respite from the pressure of daily life, whether in the form of a multi-day vacation or a single-day break.
“I think people still struggle to prioritize mental health and hold it in the same light as physical health,” Christiano said. “But the reality is that if you’re going to work completely stressed and overwhelmed, your productivity is not going to be top-notch. So if taking a day means you can take a breath and return to work in a better headspace – maybe not perfect, but better than it was – that’s definitely advantageous.”
Here are some ideas for how to take a day when you need one.
Make the Days Your Own
When he’s not at work, you’re likely to find Frank Turcotte, a clinical nurse in the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, in the garden he and his family tend on their property outside of Mebane. To him, time spent working on the garden can be just as nourishing as the tomatoes, cucumbers and squash that comes out of it.
“If you think about it, a plant is kind of like us,” Turcotte said. “If a plant doesn’t have adequate nutrition in the soil, you need to uproot it and move it somewhere else. That’s kind of like a day off for us. If you take a day off from work or do a vacation with your family, you’re taking yourself out of one environment for a period of time and putting yourself somewhere else that can nurture you.”
While we often think of using our vacation hours or time away from work for trips out of town, or time spent with friends and family, spending unstructured time doing whatever it is you want to do can also be beneficial.
Turcotte and his family find particular satisfaction in devoting time to preserving what comes out of their garden. The involved process of canning tomatoes and pickling cucumbers forces Turcotte to be in the moment, often alongside his wife and son, partaking in a fun and productive activity.
“The meticulous nature of canning helps taking your mind off of what you have to do at work,” Turcotte said. “It allows you to take that time for your family and not worry about things that can be stressful.”
Christiano, the counselor with Duke’s Personal Assistance Service, often tells clients that they shouldn’t worry too much about pursuing particular activities while taking time away from work. Instead, it’s more important to let their mind fully embrace whatever it is they are doing.
“Even if you’re using the day to go to Target and walk around and just do normal things, just be mindful that you’re there and mindful of your activity,” Christiano said. “A lot of times, your mind might still be at work, and that’s when you want to recenter, notice that your mind is still at work, and then try and focus on what’s in front of you.”
Put It On the Schedule
While taking days off can be a good way to recharge when you’re feeling tired or out of balance, when scheduled in advance, they can also be a way to ensure that you stay fresh and ready for whatever comes.
Thomas, the certified medical assistant at the Duke Orthopaedics’ Arringdon clinic, said that ideally she likes to plan for one day of paid time off per month.
It can also be smart to a day off around your work rhythms. If you know you have big projects coming up, or there are certain times of the year when work is busier than typical, plan a day off after major deadlines, or once things slow down, as a way to mentally recharge after a stressful time.
“We want to prevent people from getting to the point where they feel burned out or overwhelmed,” Christiano said. “And one way can be taking more time off.”
Don’t Feel Guilty
Thomas said that the flow of patients in Duke Orthopaedics’ Arringdon clinic can get heavy, with some days featuring a few hundred patients. And while it can be a challenge to get away when work is busy, Thomas said her periodic days off leave her in a better position to keep up with the flow of patients of her job when she returns.
“The quality of your work will be better and you’ll be better with people if you’re feeling refreshed,” Thomas said.
Christiano said that with fast-paced jobs, and growing to-do lists, there will always be reasons not to take a day off. But it’s important to keep in mind that a fresh mind and recharged spirit is a major advantage.
“Inevitably, there’s resistance,” Christiano said. “We know we may come back to a billion emails and that our coworkers may have to pick up some of our load. But the payoff is that, even if you come back to a billion emails, your mind space will be a lot different after you take time to recharge. You’ll be in a better place to address everything.”