Richard G. Petty, MD

Work, Stress, Vacations and Exotic Drinks with Little Umbrellas in Them

Your humble reporter has often spoken about his brush with burnout.

Even though I was a recognized expert on stress – and a former meditation teacher, no less! – I got perilously close to the edge. Fortunately someone noticed and I was packed off on vacation. It was remarkable that just a week in the Caribbean followed by an unforgettable one-week retreat in the Catskills was enough to cure me. My resting pulse rate fell from 68 to 48, where it stayed for more than a year, and I never again had any symptoms. The key point was that the short break was enough to interrupt the downward spiral and provoke the cognitive shift that prevented me from ever again making the mistakes that lead to the trouble in the first place.

I still work hard, but trust me when I say that working 16-17 hours a day, seven days a week is preposterous. Neglecting your emotional health and social life is bad enough. But the last straw was to stop engaging in spiritual practices that I had followed since childhood.

For a long time now I have been teaching that most people can make phenomenal changes in a very short period. It may take you a long time to prepare, but once you are ready change can be extremely quick. If you think about it, the actual physical business of an egg and a sperm joining to make a new life takes less than a minute. But the preparation for the event may take half a lifetime. At least I hope for your sake that it takes a lot longer than a minute…

And that’s all that I am going to say about that…

I was thinking about all this the other day when a stressed executive was telling me that he all he wanted was to spend six months sitting on a beach. In fact that would probably be a thoroughly bad idea.

It is not the time; it is the quality of the time, and the energy that you bring to it.

I cannot stress enough that for most people energy management is far more important than time management.

When it comes to beating burnout, the kind of vacation is likely more important than its length.

A summary of ten years of research by a team lead by Dov Eden, an organizational psychologist from Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Management, was presented at last year’s meeting of “Work, Stress and Health” in Miami. The event is sponsored by the American Psychological Association and what Professor Eden had to say really supports what we have been talking about.

For the past ten years the team has been studying “respite effects,” which measure relief from chronic job stress during and after vacations away from the workplace. They have also been looking at the impact of constant contact: the revolution in telecommunications has kept some people permanently wired into the office while they are supposed to be away putting their feet up and drinking exotic concoctions with little umbrellas in them. So we are losing true “respite relief,” and that in turn is a cause of chronic job stress.

One recent study involved 800 professors from eight Universities in Israel, the United States, and New Zealand. The researchers measured stress levels before, during, and after a sabbatical leave of a semester or a whole year. They compared them with people who stayed home, and others who just took a long weekend or a one-week vacation. They found that those who took a long sabbatical break experienced about the same amount of stress relief as people who had taken either a week off or just a long weekend or long-weekend vacation. And all three groups returned to pre-sabbatical stress levels in about the same amount of time: approximately three weeks.

Some of Eden’s other studies have indicated that people who best succeed in uncoupling from work and detaching form its demands, get the most benefit from their vacations and they probably less likely to experience job burnout. It’s the ones who cannot detach from the constant flow of job-related demands that are most likely to suffer from burnout.

The key to a refreshing vacation is to create as much space as possible between you and your work life. I once knew someone who spent a week on Tioman Island in the South China Sea. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, which was one of the reasons why it was selected for the filming of South Pacific. For the whole week she spent all day every day working, and every day the hotel’s fax machine got jammed with the 60-70 pages that she sent out. That is not a recipe for a refreshing, life affirming vacation.

This body of research confirms what most sensible managers have worked out for themselves. When someone goes on vacation they should leave their cell phones behind and not check their email. People who feel attached to the office 24/7 are setting themselves up for long-term stress-related illnesses.

I get a lot more email and phone calls than most normal mortals, yet many years ago I made a remarkable discovery.

I had been out of contact for a week, and even after disposing of the spam and junk mail, there were still well over a thousand messages “demanding” my immediate attention. But during that week away, events had moved on, most no longer needed any input from me at all. Matters had been resolved and solutions found. We lost no business, and I have it on good authority that the earth did not fall into the sun.

I came back rested and restored, and firing on all cylinders: everyone benefited.

Quite obviously it is not a good idea to be completely un-obtainable. I have had two friends, one of whom lost her mother and another his wife, and neither heard the sad news for more than a week. So even when I am in some far flung part of the planet I make sure that there is a way for me to be contacted, But only three people know how.

And I am no longer an electron junkie.

Try it the next time that you have a chance. It really is easier than you think.

“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice; and be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven you.”
–The Bible, Ephesians 4:31-32

“Detach yourself from all that makes your mind restless. Renounce all that disturbs its peace. If you want peace, deserve it.”
–Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Indian Spiritual Teacher and Exponent of Jnana Yoga and Advaita Doctrine, 1897-1981)

“You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by, but some of them are golden only because we have let then slip by.”
–Sir James Matthew (J.M.) Barrie (Scottish Writer and Playwright, 1860-1937)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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