But what about sleep, which we take for granted and are so quick to sacrifice under the pressure of our workaday lives?Total sleep deprivation greatly impairs cognitive skills, leaving you in a state identical to drunkenness. But researchers are also finding that losing even one or two hours of sleep each night, over the course of two weeks, can render you as helpless as if you’d had no sleep at all. That means workaholics who swear by four to six hours a night are walking around with seriously diminished faculties. The scariest part?According to another recent study, we’re not even aware of what’s happening—the effects of sleep loss are that insidious.
Intrigued by the Air New Zealand findings, I set out to perform my own road test. With the help of Dr. Mark Rosekind, the president and chief scientist at Alertness Solutions, I re-created the study on a recent trip to Australia to visit my sister and her newborn daughter. Beginning a few days prior to my departure, I wore an Actiwatch—a mysterious little timepiece-like box that tracks sleeping patterns—on my wrist. (Not the most attractive of vacation accessories, I must admit.) Much to my sister’s annoyance, I also pulled out a PDA three times a day to take a five-minute vigilance test.
Dr. Rosekind’s analysis shows that my sleep time increased by an average of 50 minutes a night while away, and my cognitive abilities along with it. According to my performance tests, I was 80 percent more alert than when I was in the office. Most important, perhaps, I remained alert after I returned home and threw myself back into a busy week at work. My test scores were still 93 percent better than before my vacation—a fact that I’ll gladly share with my superiors when the time comes to put in my next vacation request.
But vacations aren’t the be-all and end-all panacea, as my case clearly demonstrates. On some evenings during my trips, after a long dinner and multiple glasses of wine (an activity that I don’t, ahem, engage in during my working life), I didn’t even have the heart to undertake a vigilance test, knowing that my results would be abysmal. And although I was getting more sleep, my average of six hours and 14 minutes was still well short of the recommended seven to nine hours per night. (For this, I suppose I can thank my early-rising new niece.) In short, it all depends on how you actually spend your vacation.
"In a world where everyone is moving too quickly, eating the wrong foods, and stressed, vacations are short-term Band-Aids that help you continue on," says Dr. Richard Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general. "Americans need to learn how to work the vacation experience into their everyday lives." Now a vice-chairman of Canyon Ranch, Carmona has an interest in seeing people adopt the healthy behaviors they learn on vacation as long-term habits. That is, after all, the Canyon Ranch mission.
But the doctor is definitely onto something. A 2003 study from Tel Aviv University found that although vacations relieved stress and burnout among workers, the afterglow lasted only about three weeks, after which stress levels shot right up to their previous high. The solution?The researchers are mum, but I have one: another vacation.