It’s no secret that in the midst of a global pandemic, Americans are anxious. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on mental health in the United States has been well documented by Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Polls monthly, with 53 percent of adults saying in July that “worry and stress” related to the pandemic have negatively affected their mental health.
And for many Americans, one big factor in managing mental health is travel — something most are not supposed to do right now. So it might not come as a surprise that a July LinkedIn survey about paid time off recently found that, amid the pandemic, two-thirds of people are not planning to take or don’t know whether they will take a vacation in 2020.
Yet experts say regular breaks from work are essential to mental health, especially during a pandemic. Research has shown that the pandemic has made the average workday 48 minutes longer. Experts at the Society for Human Resource Management have also addressed the issue, saying: “Now that work is home and home is work, employees may not properly disengage, making it impossible for them to unplug and refresh.”
But can you remove stressors without removing yourself from your usual surroundings? Vacation researchers at Finland’s Tampere University have studied the mental health benefits of staycations compared with travel away from home and found that at-home breaks free of work-related tasks are similar to a vacation — but truly detaching from work is key.
“We have compared domestic travel versus weekends at home and found very few differences in terms of activities and experiences,” one of the researchers, clinical psychologist Jessica de Bloom, said via email. “The home environment poses some challenges in terms of mental detachment from work, particularly when your home turned into your office during the pandemic. And we know from [other] research that detachment is one of the most important components for recovery from work stress.”
Other doctors concur. “The value of vacation is to remove the stressors of one’s day-to-day engagements,” Boston University epidemiologist and mental health expert Sandro Galea said via email. “If that can be achieved through staying at home, it would have the same mental health benefit as going elsewhere.”
There’s an abundance of research on the medical benefits of travel and generally taking time off from work, including reduced stress, better sleep habits and a reduced risk of heart disease. De Bloom says people shouldn’t let travel restrictions stop their time off, “regardless of where they take it.”
“Many people canceled their planned holiday trips and therefore revoked their vacation time. They think ‘there is nothing I can do and nowhere to go,’ " de Bloom says. “This is a dangerous mind-set, because people have been very stressed due to the pandemic and are in need of recovery."
Millennial American travelers in particular let how much they can travel dictate how much paid time off they use, according to a 2019 study by the U.S. Travel Association and Oxford University. The No. 1 reason for travel among millennials (individuals born between 1981 and 1997) was “friends or family asking you to come on a trip with them.”
That sets a difficult precedent for pandemic times, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still encouraging people to avoid travel, and noting that “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
“Many people see vacation as being equal to traveling. I do not agree with this,” de Bloom said. "The key to vacationing is mental disengagement from work for a prolonged period to have beneficial recovery experiences.”
So, how does one enjoy a staycation during a pandemic? De Bloom recommends the “DRAMMA” model of successful recovery. DRAMMA stands for detachment, relaxation, autonomy, mastery, meaning and affiliation. No matter where you use your time off, de Bloom says these states are central to recovering from the stress of work and recharging your batteries, just as you do when you sleep.
While not all of these states need to be achieved for mental health recovery from pandemic stressors, they all represent proven strategies for achieving recovery. Carving out a few days of vacation time with these recovery modes can have a positive impact on your mental state amid the chaotic news cycle and navigating a work-from-home environment.
The stressors of 2020 are unlike any in recent memory — and there’s no need to get on a plane, or sometimes even in a car, to access the true spirit of travel and unwind.