TORONTO — Dmitri Melamed and his family are on their fourth vacation since the pandemic lockdown — modest getaways to places just outside Toronto that offer a mental respite from the pandemic routines of work and home life.
“Being away definitely helps a ton,” said Melamed.
“This was truly an opportunity to do a few things that were on my bucket list for sure … If anything, I’d say the pandemic allowed me and our family to explore some of these unfulfilled local dreams.”
On the bucket list are things like renting an RV and vacationing in a more self-sufficient, spontaneous manner, for example. Even so, he rarely disconnects completely from the office. On most days, he might still put in three to four hours of work, he said, calling these escapes a “workcation.”
“A lot of it is me,” Melamed, who works in advertising, admitted over the phone, but it is also the nature of his work. And he is not alone.
Even before COVID-19, surveys revealed how difficult it was for employees to leave work behind, how common it was to at least check email or make themselves available for emergencies while on vacation. And a survey released last November found that half of Canadians experienced “vacation shaming” at work – where they were made to feel guilty about taking time off. Another found Canadians put in as much as 33 extra working hours before and after a vacation to make up for the time away.
And that’s if they even take vacation.
The pandemic has fueled some of these bad work habits, exacerbating behaviours that experts say can take a toll on mental health. More recent surveys found that employees are working longer hours and experiencing burnout since the pandemic. With everyone at home and seemingly nowhere to fly — or having no desire to fly without a vaccine — foregoing vacation may be tempting. And if work is precarious or layoffs have resulted in a busier workload, does it even make sense to take time off?
A survey put out by the Vanier Institute of the Family in May found that 72 per cent of parents did not plan on taking a vacation in 2020. Another recent poll by staffing firm Robert Half Canada, found that 67 per cent have not had any communication from their employers about booking vacation days, 10 per cent said they had too much work to take time off, while another five per cent said they were discouraged from taking a break.
It is hard to say whether attitudes changed along with the warmer weather and loosening COVID restrictions, but this period is not expected to last: uncertainty looms in the coming months as schools reopen and the flu season returns.
“It may be harder for people to make those decisions and take that time off,” Kate Bezanson, an associate professor of sociology at Brock University, told CTV News.
“(It’s) not necessarily overt pressure, but it can be internalized pressure to be available and not take some time off.”
Fall is normally an important “exhalation” point — kids are back in school, there is structure at home again, and space to tackle other neglected activities. But this year will be different.
Vacations are not a “magic bullet,” Bezanson said, but “where it is possible, I would hope that people feel that they can take that time and take it when it’s nice out, because it’s a long winter … And we have no idea what that’s going to look like this year.”
NOT ALL BREAKS ARE A VACATION
COVID-19 has drastically changed people’s lives over the last half year, says Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.
It is by now a familiar story of exhaustively juggling multiple responsibilities and roles all at once: working remotely, taking care of young children, keeping kids occupied, managing homeschooling, and supporting elderly parents. It is perpetually sacrificing one thing to make time for another. It is neglecting exercise and not eating a balanced, healthy diet. There are also feelings of grief, which Kamkar told CTVNews.ca can fall along a continuum of missing gatherings with friends, to grief over illness and death.
It has also meant a spectrum of uncertainties and worries — about finances, fears of contracting the virus or spreading it to a loved one, and fears about the future.
“The kind of work-life balance aspirations that we might have had around telecommuting probably haven’t borne fruit,” Bezanson added.
These changes have created a new normal, however, and experts caution not to make assumptions about whether a vacation is helpful or not helpful.
“Some people are saying, I have to take vacation, because I have to take care of all the other responsibilities — something’s coming up, a gigantic project or responsibilities, care for a loved one — they need to take time off,” Kamkar said.
“Vacation has always meant different things for different people … self-care really has to be individualized.”
Pandemic or not, studies have consistently demonstrated that taking time off from work for self-care can lower stress, help increase productivity, and improve mental health.
“I am personally a very strong believer in finding ways to take designated pauses in our professional lives, especially when we have the small people around,” said Bezanson.
“I think one of the things that the pandemic has made really challenging is finding those dividing lines between your professional life and your personal life.”
Bezanson noted that many families are also prioritizing their children’s friendships when navigating ways to incorporate socializing breaks into their routine.
“So the adult friendship networks, or the adult family relationships may not be part of that circle. So the kinds of vacation time — people that they would spend time with might also be quite different, and that will have an effect on how you plan your social time,” she said.
Melamed for his part, has been bubbling with his brother-in-law and sister-in-law and their daughter.
For them, these smaller getaways have been much more relaxing and flexible, allowing the family more room to be spontaneous and not follow a strict schedule.
“There is far less stress when it comes to travelling in Ontario … I feel way more relaxed,” he said, pointing to the stress of packing for a major trip and the worries about missing a flight with two young children and luggage in tow, for example.
“There is way less mental overhead when it comes to travelling local.”
HOW TO LESSEN STRESS, IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH
With all the challenges around taking time away from work and responsibilities — and understanding that not everyone can afford or is able to take extended breaks — experts say there is no one-size-fits-all prescription on best practices.
“If I were dispensing any advice, it would be that I think we have to be patient with each other and with ourselves,” said Bezanson.
“You need to manage the sense of loss over those opportunities that may not be available and be gentle with each other about what is possible. I have a 17-year-old who probably doesn’t want to spend a week away with me right now anyway having spent the last six months hanging out with me.”
For some, time off or a vacation can mean a restorative getaway of rest and relaxation. For others, it can simply be a change of scenery, spending more time outside, making time for a picnic, going on a hike or a bike ride, getting more sleep, learning a new hobby, or disconnecting from sources of stress like work emails, news, and social media.
Researchers found that spending a combined total of at least two hours in nature a week can lead to better health in one study involving nearly 20,000 people, for example. Meanwhile, experts have highlighted the deleterious mental health impact of spending too much time on social media, exacerbated in 2020 by “doomscrolling” through social media feeds and reading an endless flow of bad news.
Kamkar adds that society also needs to normalize prescribing time for rest.
“Finding ‘me’ time … practicing self-kindness, self-compassion as part of self-care is important,” she said.
“Setting meaningful activities, appreciating our sense of self, developing a healthy view of ourselves — all those are our foundation to building our resiliency.”
Kamkar says we need to create our own individualized “recipe” for what works: “What can you do that gives you a sense of well-being, (better) quality of life?”
In Melamed’s case, he enjoys his work, which is partly why it can be hard for him to disconnect, even while on vacation. But even a three or four hour break from work can help, he said.
“I definitely found ways to kind of decompress and not always dwell on work in this kind of unhealthy cycle,” he said. “Meditation helps quite a bit.”
Even before the pandemic, Melamed would meditate regularly, and even instituted voluntary guided meditation sessions at the office after their Monday work meetings.
“Just to kind of set the week straight, so we’re in a really positive mood, because sometimes these Monday briefs can set the wrong tone … and there’s no judgement.”
For their fourth getaway, the Melameds are returning to a “quaint, cheap and cheerful” cottage and campground resort in the Muskoka’s they visited in an earlier trip this summer that brings back happy memories.
“I was singing the whole way going up, it was just such a gorgeous drive,” he said. “God forbid if anything (were to happen), you’re still in Ontario, in Canada. It’s familiar. It’s just this really incredible headscape to be in.”