Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist & Founder
We all know that working in healthcare, and in particular the NHS, is tough right now. In addition to the inherently challenging work we do, services are stretched, vacancies are high and working conditions are far from ideal. If you’ve clicked on this article you know all of this. Travel is not going to solve all of these problems, but travelling with intention can be one strategy that helps to buffer the negative impact of these workplace hazards.
I’ve previously written about the psychological benefits of travel including how we can use travel to enhance our curiosity, creativity and well-being. These can be important protective factors for us as Healthcare Professionals (HCPs), and so it is important for us to think about how we can use time away with purpose. To help with this, I interviewed Dr Paula Redmond a Clinical Psychologist who specialises in working with HCPs. In this article we combine our experience to bring you advice on how to use travel intentionally.
What challenges do health care professionals face in their roles?
Dr Paula explains:
“The common challenges across the professional groups is a high level of responsibility, coupled with high emotional and cognitive labour. The content varies depending on your role; if you are a therapist there’s going to be a high emotional component and if you’re a heart surgeon it’s going to be more about responsibility and complex decision making.
The cognitive and emotional labour coupled with high responsibility and often low control, and that’s the perfect recipe for burnout”
Given these challenges the next section will focus on how we can use travel as part of the recovery and restoration processes that can help to protect us from burnout. Dr Paula explains:
“There are three pillars to burnout prevention, and travel fits in with the third. The first one is job crafting, which is how you navigate the nature of the job to balance resource, workload and reward. The second is policing the boundaries between work and home and the third is work recovery; this is about how we spend our time outside of work. This is where travel might come in.
To think about work recovery we use this DDRRAAMA acronym: Detaching, Digesting, Relaxation, Rest, Autonomy, Achievement, Meaning and Affiliation.”
“The key thing is being able to tune in to what it is that you need and giving yourself permission to give yourself that.”
With this in mind, let’s look at how we can use travel for each of these in more detail:
As HCPs having mechanisms to detach ourselves from situations at work is essential. If we’ve been in our roles for some time, we’ll each have ways of doing this. One that sticks in my mind is a nursing colleague who used driving past a local landmark on her way home as a way to do this. She described how at that point on her journey home, she would try to let everything from the day go, and start to focus on home life.
With this in mind, when it comes to holidays there is something very symbolic about getting on a plane and flying away. Going through the check in and security processes each bring us one step closer to being ‘away’. This can be a really powerful way to detach from the content and day-to-day stresses of our roles.
Given that high levels of responsibility are part of our roles, it’s really important to have ways of detaching from this when we travel. As a personal example, I took a few months out when I worked in the NHS and spent some of this time volunteering at a cat charity. It might sound strange but it was great to be told what to do! When I returned to the NHS, tuning back into my travel experiences helped me to connect to that part of my identity, and to realise that my job is just part of who I am. For me personally that was really powerful and helped to maintain my resilience.
Part of detaching also includes maintaining strong boundaries, as Dr Paula explains “try not to check work emails from your phone and to have really strong boundaries around that. Try to hold and understand that the cover for your annual leave is an organisational issue and is not your problem. That might require some concrete steps of action like not bringing a work phone with you and deleting the apps on your personal phone while you’re on holiday.”
In the burnout literature, digesting is about processing the situations we experience in our work lives. Dr Paula explains:
“My approach would be to see breaks as a way of making time and space to digest what you experience at work. This doesn’t have to be an active process of intentionally thinking and talking about work, but just like digesting our food it can go on in the background while we are doing other things. Our minds and bodies are well versed at doing this kind of sub-conscious processing through dreaming and movement, for example. But we do need to create time and space in which we are not adding more to the food pile. Ideally we will have frequent opportunities for digesting our experiences both in and outside of work, but travel can be a great way to make extra space for this.”
When we return from our trip, hopefully feeling relaxed and refreshed, then we may feel differently about situations or at least these situations won’t feel quite so raw to talk and think about.
Experiences of rest and relaxation when we travel can calm our nervous system and help us to feel safe. This is important when we have been dealing with stressful situations frequently, and when our stress systems are overwhelmed. Dr Paula explains:
“I often work with health professionals who are really exhausted and from this perspective I would be advising people to be really mindful or their need for rest. This is really important when you’re on that burnout spectrum.”
Tuning in to the feelings of calm we experience can even be beneficial when we return home. For more on this, check out our previous article Beaches, benches and nature: travel and our sense of calm
Dr Paula emphasises that lack of control can be an important occupational hazard, especially for junior staff and those that work on wards and staffing rotas. This lack of control can leave us feeling quite helpless at times. This means it can be really important to use our travels as an opportunity to take charge.
Solo travel can be a particularly important way to do this, especially if we are really feeling that lack of control in our lives. In line with this, this article describes how one junior doctor used a career break to manage the impact of her role.
Achievement can be a loaded word for us as HCPs as we are usually high achievers. I don’t want you to equate this with productivity. Travel experiences can be used to give us an important sense of accomplishment; the feeling that you get when you’ve done something that was a little challenging but felt worthwhile. Picture climbing to the top of a hill and seeing a beautiful view. Imagine navigating public transport with a few words in the local language and finally arriving at your hotel. You get the picture; sometimes we feel like going for the ‘easy’ option of an all-inclusive resort but it might not tick the accomplishment box. That said, if we’re feeling absolutely exhausted, it might be just what we need.
A recent study in China looked at the restorative effects of holidays (Cui, 2023). It was found that those who engaged in slightly challenging activities when they were on holiday experienced the restorative effects of their trip for longer. These challenging activities included things like talking to strangers, learning new skills such as scuba diving and problem solving. I’d encourage you to seek out these kinds of experiences on your trip.
We are all unique and what provides a sense of meaning will be different for each of us. As such, it is important for us to reflect on what is meaningful for us personally and how we can plan our travel experiences to meet this. Dr Paula explains:
“If you’re feeling like work has started to feel meaningless, and you’ve started to feel detached or cynical about work, seek experiences that might offer a sense of meaning or a sense of connection, and when you can tune in to other identities.”
The following questions may be helpful to reflect on this:
· What activities do I enjoy and feel fully engaged with? How can I cultivate these experiences on my trip?
· What experiences have I really enjoyed on previous trips? What was it about them that I enjoyed?
· What is a meaningful experience for me?
This article describes how one doctor travelled during a career break in order to explore his identity beyond being his role
Positive relationships are an important protective factor when it comes to our well-being and coping. If we are travelling with other people, our travel experiences are a great way to build relationships. These positive experiences with our travel companions can strengthen our bonds and help to get us through the tougher times in life.
Travelling as a parent
For parents, bonds with children are hugely protective when it comes to facing challenges it at work. Having our role within a family helps to prevent our work identity from becoming all consuming. Of course having a family means that your travel experiences may look different to how they before. Dr Paula adds:
“when you become a parent, your holiday is not going to look like the holidays that you had in the past and you’ve really got to adapt your thinking. I think you might have to let go of some of the ideas you may have about what a holiday should be and think about what you need now”
However, building positive experiences as a family can provide the meaning that buffers you from the impact of your role. It might help to remember this when watching the family entertainment for the umpteenth time! For more on this check out Holidays with the kids: advice from a child clinical psychologist
Taking a solo trip can be beneficial as a way of connecting with yourself, and so it provides this sense of affiliation in a different way. Travelling alone can also be a great antidote to the lack of control we often face in our clinical roles: We don’t have to compromise when it comes to choosing the destination or how we spend our time. Travelling solo also means being free from responsibilities other than looking after our own needs. This may be just what you need.
Reflecting on our own needs
Dr Paula advises recognising your own needs and using this to think about what you might need from a trip. However this is not always straightforward:
“what is tricky is that obviously our needs can change, and we often need to make plans in advance, especially if you are planning a big trip or holiday. So I think partly it’s about self-awareness and thinking about what you might need when you’re planning your trips in advance. Thinking about what might be going on for you. But also its important to keep some flexibility and openness around that so that you can be more responsive to your needs when it comes.
Maybe this will also involve letting go of some of the ideas you may have about what a holiday might look like, and giving yourself permission for it to be what it needs to be at the time. “
When using travel for burnout prevention and recovery, it’s important to recognise our current needs and to think about how we can use our travel experiences to meet these. This is particularly important for HCPs given the high levels of responsibility we have in our roles, and so it is important to use our travel in an intentional way.
Cui, R. (2023). Travel duration and the restorative effects of holiday experiences: an inverted U-shape. Tourism Review.
If you enjoyed this article check out our previous post What are the psychological benefits of travel?