vacation illustration with figures walking, biking, running in park path

Vacation Time: A Double-Edged Sword in the Pandemic

COVID-19 has made it more important than ever to step away from work to recharge and refresh. Flexibility — along with a bit of creativity — can ensure a vacation that does just that.

By Emily L. Ongstad, Ph.D., SWE Editorial Board

It’s been more than a year since the world slowed for the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us working as engineers and scientists were fortunate to keep our jobs and transition to a life either working from home or in a workplace with a reduced density of workers.

One thing that hasn’t changed much, if at all, in this pandemic are vacation policies. Many companies, especially those with “use it or lose it” vacation policies, are encouraging their employees to continue taking their vacation time as they had pre-pandemic. And while vacation policies haven’t changed, the ability to travel safely and with peace of mind is significantly more challenging, especially as we see advertisements announcing great travel deals and news of changing protocols.

Just because safe travel is challenging at this time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking a break to recharge and refresh. We all need pause from our intense, analytical jobs. The pandemic and the new ways in which we are working have added a layer (or several) of stress depending on the often complex balance of home and work life.

Benefits of taking vacations are innumerable. Getting out of the office for several days is known to relieve stress. And perhaps even more importantly, the effects of resetting are lasting and carry over after your return to work. This can result in increased productivity and improvements in job performance. People who take vacations are also less likely to experience burnout and generally have better relationships with their families and friends.

Even with the known benefits of taking a vacation, escaping your house in the last year might have been nearly impossible. Travel restrictions or the increased levels of risk associated with travel have made many adventurers travel averse. I live in a state that had travel restrictions for many months last year, meaning that if I left the state, I needed to isolate at home for two weeks on my return. Many companies also have a self-isolation policy after out-of-state travel. While people have varying levels of comfort with travel in the midst of early vaccine rollouts, giving up extra vacation time to self-isolate (if you need to be in the office) after your vacation may not feel worth your while.

While many of us didn’t take vacation in the first half of 2020 in hopes that by the end of the year we might be able to travel normally again, this wasn’t the case, and might have resulted in lost vacation or many hours rolled over.

vacation time girl with dog illustration in park

Just because safe travel is challenging at this time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking a break to recharge and refresh.

Finding new ways to vacation

By the end of the year, battling Zoom fatigue, the feeling of always being engaged while working mostly from home, and an incredibly intense workload, I was fried. As a person who loves to see the world and learn about other cultures, I often use my vacation time for traveling abroad to visit new places. My family also lives halfway across the U.S., so I often plan vacations home to see them. Because I wish to remain isolated until broader immunity to COVID-19 is achieved, neither of these are current options for me. The last year has taught me, and many others, the need to find new ways to vacation.

One trend over this past year has been to vacation closer to home. Renting a vacation home or camping at local state and national parks can provide a reprieve from work, get you and your family out of the house, and still offer the same benefits of jet setting around the globe. As more people are vaccinated and guidelines from national and global health organizations are changing, you might even have the opportunity to include more of your typical vacation buddies in your plans.

Early in the pandemic, I was ready to buckle down and ride it out. I had just returned home from my sister’s wedding, so I felt refreshed. But I didn’t do a great job of planning to step away for the rest of the year. For those of us used to traveling on our vacation time, taking time off with no plans in mind can be challenging. If you’re at home on a “staycation,” it’s far too easy to do a quick load of laundry, notice that the front bushes need mulching, or quickly check emails. But letting home and work needs creep in during time off can deplete the benefits of taking vacation in the first place.

This year I’m being more proactive about planning vacation time, as I would have pre-pandemic. It has been helpful to schedule specific activities on days where I also make it a rule to not do any work or attend to house chores. These activities might be as simple as mountain biking at the local park, or driving an hour outside the city to go for a hike.

Regardless of how we choose to vacation this year, the stress of the pandemic has made it obvious that we all need to make concrete plans to step away. This is especially true as it becomes more apparent that herd immunity isn’t likely to be reached anytime soon. While we may not be able to return to our typical vacation styles just yet, by exploring new options we can still plan vacations that fulfill the intended purpose of refreshing and recharging our lives.

Emily L. Ongstad, Ph.D., is an associate principal scientist in cardiovascular disease research at AstraZeneca in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She is a biomedical engineering honors graduate of Michigan Technological University and holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in bioengineering from Clemson University. Dr. Ongstad has served as the SWE MAL president and as a member of the editorial board since FY18.