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Are you taking the right vacations? Making the most of your down time

Mother, father and child holding hands lifting child into the air while standing in the ocean.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is advising travellers to practise enhanced health precautions when travelling internationally.

Though Dr. Anita Chakravarti didn’t know it at the time, a family vacation she took 20 years ago would change her life forever.

Dr. Chakravarti — a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and a retired anesthesiologist who is now CEO of the health and wellness company, [M]POWER Mindful Professional Practice — had gone on a three-week road trip with her husband and children through British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

“We never had a downtime holiday,” she said. This one was packed with activities like hiking, and on the way home they stopped to visit friends.

“My friend had organized a trail ride with our kids.… I said, ‘None of us want to go. It’s too hot. We just want to stay around and sit in the pool,’”.

But her friend insisted.

“I didn’t listen to what I was feeling and I let her talk me into it — and I was the one who got thrown,” she said.

Dr. Chakravarti was thrown from her horse and suffered a neck and back injury. Instead of returning to her busy career feeling refreshed, she found herself in severe pain, which affected her work and which has stayed with her ever since.

Knowing how to take the right kind of vacation can be difficult, especially with ongoing travel restrictions and testing requirements. But with physician burnout on the rise, not taking time to rest and restore both your body and your mind can lead to long-term physical, mental and emotional problems.

The longer the vacation, the better

“Any vacation is better than no vacation, [but] the longer the better,” says Dr. Mel Borins, a family physician, associate professor at the University of Toronto and author of Go Away: Just for the Health of It. “I’ve seen people’s health improve just with a weekend away, [and] I think more physicians are aware that downtime and leisure time are extremely important to health.”

Studies have found that vacations reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attacks, among other health problems. Families also have better relationships when they vacation together.

“So basically, you’re going to increase your lifespan, increase your life satisfaction, decrease burnout. And [as] families, [your] relationships improve,” Dr. Borins said.

In his book, he offers tips on how to travel and stay well while on vacation. But is there a certain type of vacation that is most beneficial for doctors?

“Everybody has a different idea of what a vacation is for them — some like to keep active, some like to veg out,” Dr. Borins said. But “the research is saying that people feel more regenerated and more like the vacation lasts if they’ve been out in nature.”

Practise mindfulness to make the most of your downtime

Research shows that physicians’ health and well-being directly affect the quality of care they provide.

But “even resilient doctors burn out,” said Dr. Chakravarti. “Imagine 30 years of seeing the panorama of human suffering in patients. We’re not taught how to handle this.” Of course, the events of the past two years has made these stressors so much worse.

Dr. Chakravarti, whose own experience led her to become a pain specialist, also became involved in physician health and wellness and trained as a mindful practice facilitator. When it comes to time off for doctors, she said, the most important thing is your mindset.

“Mindfulness is not about ignoring, blocking [work] out — it’s acknowledging, accepting and then making a choice that’s appropriate,” she said.

If, for example, there is a patient you are concerned about while you're away, you might choose to check in on your personal time. That’s OK — as long as you know it is a choice you are making. And while it’s generally recommended to put the phone or pager down as much as possible, Dr. Borins agreed that is not always realistic.

“If the only way you can manage to be away is to stay connected in some way or other, it’s better than not going at all,” he said.

Find what fills you up

Self-awareness is also important when choosing what type of vacation to take.

“A two-week holiday trying to hit all the major European sights may not be a relaxing holiday, but it may be what fills you up,” Dr. Chakravarti said. “So again, it’s being aware of what it is that rejuvenates.”

Whatever you choose, it is important that you come away feeling recharged and rested. If your body hasn’t had any downtime lately, that might mean skipping the marathon.

“Our body gets into that fight-flight-freeze mode automatically, and it doesn’t matter how much you enjoy climbing or running 26 miles — it’s still a stress on your body,” Dr. Chakravarti said. “If the holiday is not something that recovers...I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying [it’s about] the awareness of the choices that we're making and tuning into our bodies.”

Here are a few more tips for ensuring your next holiday is as restorative as possible.

Plan ahead for best results

Harvard Business Review analysis found that vacations are more beneficial the less stressful they are. Making solid plans — as far as that's possible right now — can reduce stress once you are away, so try to plan your vacation more than a month in advance and iron out details like transportation. If possible, meet up with someone knowledgeable about the location when you get there.

1. Consider a staycation

If family or other obligations prevent you from physically going away, author and former surgeon Dr. Cory Fawcett, a U.S.-based physician, recommends planning a staycation. To reap the benefits of your time off, however, it’s important to set some boundaries, such as not succumbing to household chores — and not doing any more work than you would if you were lying on a beach far away.

Rather, plan your time off like you would a trip. Make a list of activities in your area — museums or visiting a local lake or hiking trail — and in the evenings, try watching a series of movies together as a family, playing board games or putting on a family talent show!

2. Ease back in

Dr. Borins identified several ways to help ease your re-entry to the workplace after a holiday, as well.

“I personally used to get a cold every time I’d come back from vacation,” he said. “I went back and right off the bat worked overtime, so it kind of wiped out the vacation experience.”

Now he recommends pre-scheduling an activity you love for your first week back, whether it is a walk in the park, a massage, playing or watching sports, or coffee with a friend. Be sure to book it ahead of time so you have something to look forward to.

Dr. Borins also suggested under-booking your time, so that even if you are trying to catch up, you do it over a few weeks, rather than all within the first week back.

Other tips include immediately getting your holiday photos organized and keeping souvenirs visible or wearing some of your vacation clothes during your first week back.

3. Use your downtime wisely

Another way to ensure your time away leaves you feeling re-energized is to use the fresh perspective you gain to reflect on your life and career.

On his site The Happy MD, family doctor and consultant Dr. Dike Drummond recommends taking an hour out of your vacation to make a list of things that are not working for you professionally. Choose one that you want to improve, identify the first step in addressing it and set a deadline for yourself to do so. That way you will come back feeling not only rested but also empowered to improve your work life.

The staycation tax credit for Ontario residents 

If you live in Ontario and travel within the province in 2022, you can claim accommodation expenses (such as hotel bills, cottage rental or campground fees) on your provincial tax return for 2022. You can spend up to $1,000 as an individual and get back up to $200, or spend up to $2,000 as a family (spouse or common-law partner and eligible children) and get back up to $400.

Be sure to keep your receipts.