How rested do you feel right now? Unless you are still scratching the summer holiday sand from your scalp, the answer is probably: Not very.
The unfortunate truth about those long January days – or even weeks – away from work is that the rejuvenating effects may last only three days. By Thursday, it is as if you had never been away.
Your tan lasts longer than your holiday glow.
"That is a little bit sad, when you think about it," says scholar in organisational behaviour Leisa Sargent, a professor and senior deputy dean at UNSW Business School.
Much as we might enjoy planning our next vacation, relying on an annual family holiday to stock up our energy levels and de-stress is not an effective strategy on its own.
A better plan is to also build in some micro-breaks at work – little moments of rejuvenation throughout the day. Letting your eyes rest on something from nature for as little as several seconds can help you recharge your energy and improve your mood and focus, says Sargent.
Sargent has co-authored research on 'green micro-breaks' showing that people who take a break from an editing task to rest their eyes on a view out the window of a planted rooftop are able to reduce tension and improve their performance.
'To get the best results, what you are looking at has to be something that is pleasing or satisfying and has an aesthetic about it that is interesting'
– LEISA SARGENT
Her co-researchers on Green micro-breaks: Viewing coherent workplace nature improves mood and performance were colleagues from the University of Melbourne – research fellow Kate Lee, senior lecturer Nicholas Williams and associate professor Kathryn Williams.
The experiment used a 'green roof', planted with tall grasses and yellow flowers for half the participants. The plants were covered up to simulate a plain concrete roof for the rest of the group.
The group that spent 90 seconds looking at the planted rooftop demonstrated reduced tension and increased performance in the editing task.
A coherent view
Sargent says if a natural view is not available, indoor plants and even artworks can also have an effect. However, the best results come when the view is coherent – which means it doesn't take mental effort to make sense of it.
A naturalistic painting of a rainforest, for instance, would produce better results than a green abstract painting.
Sargent's own office is decorated with an abstract painting. "It is interesting, but not restorative," she says. She also has green on her computer screensaver and pot plants in the room.
"To get the best results, what you are looking at has to be something that is pleasing or satisfying and has an aesthetic about it that is interesting. If it is jarring and incomplete, or you are looking at an industrial site, for example, it is not going to be very restorative."
The researchers have also been looking at what kind of plants are more effective for micro breaks. An earlier paper has shown a preference for taller, green, grassy and flowering vegetation, rather than lower-growing red succulents.
Sargent says the study's authors have demonstrated that micro-breaks can help with mental recovery and can be just 40 seconds or 90 seconds.
"Those that don't have a green break have to use more energy to keep working," she notes.
Micro-breaks are more effective later in the work day, when energy resources tend to be more depleted, and a longer break involving exercise has longer-lasting effects: "Even if it is just going for a short walk in nature."
Sargent schedules micro-breaks into her diary and looks for nature during a number of walks during the day, including 20 minutes by foot to and from work and going for another walk at lunchtime, sometimes to nearby Centennial Park in Sydney.
Because her work day involves being at different buildings on campus, she also uses that travelling time to look at nature and suggests "walking meetings" to colleagues.
"It is not just mental restoration, but there is also an opportunity for your heart to pump blood around," she says.
"You've only got a certain amount of energy within your system but also, from a muscular skeletal perspective, you do need movement."
a work day
The research team is now looking at how "restorative experiences" relate to creativity at work. It is often during these breaks that people find solutions to problems, Sargent says.
And she believes the research on green micro-breaks can have implications for workplace and workday design.
The modern working day has been designed by default and does not take in the massive changes wrought by the internet and the demand to be always available.
"We don't build in opportunities for social time or restorative time. The opportunity to do different things," Sargent says, adding that people should set some boundaries around how much time they devote to work.
"It is really about being fair and reasonable. How do you design a work day so that you have time to catch up with family and you are not just a workhorse for the organisation?
"If we keep working enormous hours, fatigue sets in and you do get poor judgment and decision-making, and there are consequences for health and family satisfaction. Even when you are there, you are not present, you are on low power mode."
Microsoft has kept the restorative effects of nature in mind at its corporate offices at Redmond in Washington. The technology giant has created 'treehouse' meeting spaces that look like the kind of rough-hewn accommodation enjoyed by the lost boys of Peter Pan's Neverland.
With the Microsoft campus already surrounded by woods, the meeting space offers broad outdoor Wi-Fi-enabled weatherproof benches with hatches for electricity sources, a barbecue restaurant built into a shipping container, rust-proof rocking chairs, and an outdoor gas fireplace.
'Even when you are there, you are not present, you are on low power mode'
– LEISA SARGENT
Getting holidays right next time
How long? Some researchers say the health and wellbeing benefits kick in around day three of a holiday when you have been able to shed the usual grinding routines. Eight days is an ideal length.
Too long? Breaks of two weeks or more are no more restful than shorter ones, possibly because they become more of a routine. Researcher Jessica De Bloom, a vacation researcher at Finland's University of Tampere, says a break of even five days or less is a potent way to improve health and wellbeing.
Where? Sargent recommends going somewhere unfamiliar, away from parenting and housework routines. Staycations (at home) can work, but they require effort to ensure they feel like a holiday.
What about the weekend? Our weekends now get eaten up by sports-field traffic jams, supermarket rage and laundry. However, making time for some enjoyable physical activity (a hike or bike ride, rather than a marathon) can relieve the feeling of over-scheduling.
What do we do? You should be doing things that are relaxing, but also things you are good at that are also challenging. You should also be able to choose how you spend your time and be able to mentally detach from work, according to sociologist Sabine Sonnentag of Germany's University of Mannheim.
How often? Holiday happiness peaks at day eight. So, rather than taking one big break a year, frequent breaks would be more beneficial, according to psychologist Jessica de Bloom.