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Dal Health Out of Office: The health benefits of (truly) taking vacation

Posted by Dawn Morrison, with files from McMaster University on July 12, 2023 in News
Brenda Merritt and Lynn Wilbur enjoying the low tide and coastal breeze at Burnt Coat Head, NS.
Brenda Merritt and Lynn Wilbur enjoying the low tide and coastal breeze at Burnt Coat Head, NS.

When Cathie Smith-Gillis went on vacation to Mexico earlier this year, she did something she’d never done before. For the first time, the director of human resources for the Faculty of Health truly disconnected — no texts back to the office, no surreptitiously checking e-mail, no phoning employees to ‘see how things were going.’

“This is the first time that I took a real vacation since 1997,” she said. “When I came back home, everyone noticed a difference in me — how relaxed and energized I was.”

Cathie’s vacation e-mail was also a first. “In my bounce back message, I indicated when I would be out of the office and said that in the spirit of well-being and in support of our strategic priorities, I would not be reading and responding to messages while I was away. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that,” she says.

“Our Faculty is committed to employee well-being and our strategic priorities include encouraging all faculty and staff to take their full vacation entitlement. I thought that my own approach to taking vacation needed to change — I needed to ‘walk the talk,’” she adds.

The health benefits of taking meaningful time away from the office is well documented, with some going so far as to say taking vacations could save your life. Some of the benefits of taking time off include lower stress levels, better sleep, improved productivity and enhanced overall mental health. It can also help you avoid burnout and reduce stress, allowing you to return refreshed, inspired and ready to dive back into work.

Dedicated time for relaxation and rest is critical. It’s important to not only book those vacation days, but to actually unplug from the office to truly recharge; something Cathie discovered is possible.

“Previously when I went on vacation, I thought I was the only one who knew certain things or could complete certain tasks and so I would check back into the office frequently. I’m learning it’s OK to let go, trust your team — they have my phone number and can text if an emergency comes up. But really, the team back home can likely deal with most things that can come up. It’s taken me many years to learn that,” she says.

Relax and unplug

One of the key focus areas of the Faculty of Health’s strategic plan is Be the Best Place to Work. Under that focus area, one of the goals is to proactively support faculty and staff to take 100% of their vacation time.

“We know that people can’t come to work as their best, most creative and refreshed selves if they’re exhausted,” says Brenda Merritt, Dean of the Faculty of Health. “We want people to be mentally and physically healthy, to enjoy their jobs, to be engaged and thriving. We can only accomplish this if we learn to truly relax and unplug from the busyness of our lives and work, and the research bears this out.”

What are you doing this summer to relax?

Vacation doesn’t have to mean an expensive trip abroad. There are many things you can do in your community and even at home for some much needed 'R&R’.


  • Try out a timed event or challenge (e.g. 14 days of yoga, 30 days of stretching) to introduce your body into new ways of staying physically active, it can also help to clear your mind and can help to reinforce a positive habit
  • Our brains are hardwired to be happier by water – it helps calms us, and gives us clarity. Consider going for a walk or bike ride by a body of water
  • Lots of gyms, fitness centres and other activity centres are offering free live streams, and pre-recorded classes for individuals to try their hand a new physical activity


  • Practice some self-care by creating a stay-at-home spa day
  • Give yourself a break from social media
  • Unplug and disconnect from technology


  • Get a head start on spring/summer activities around the house, such as gardening, organizing the shed, cleaning off patio furniture, etc.
  • Paint or refresh areas around your home
  • Consider rearranging items in your home to help create a fresh new space
  • Go through old photos and create albums of your favourites


  • Plan your next celebration, dream vacation, realistic vacation, a day-by-day menu for the upcoming week, something to make or create each day, a themed day, a bucket list, a project around your home you’ve always wanted to accomplish



  • Host a virtual games night with friends and family, platforms such as Kahoot are great for online games.
  • Take a trip down memory lane, revisit old photographs, home movies, and share with your loved ones.
  • Random acts of kindness can help spread joy, and rewarding in so many ways; get inspired and browse hundreds of ideas on how you can spread kindness to others.