Engineers: Please Take a Vacation

November 21, 2013

It’s hard to step away from workday stress, turn off your phone, and enjoy a proper vacation. We love our work, too – but did you know that not taking vacations can kill you?

Credit: Tim SacktronVacation is literally getting away. Vacating the office, not touring the site, not exposing yourself to environmental stressors. Doing so allows your body to physically recover from your career, where everything from your cell phone to regulatory hurdles nudges your endocrine system into overdrive.

This sounds hyperbolic – a phone call can’t push hardened engineers into the red – but it’s a byproduct of the unrelenting nature of the modern workplace. We never have just one phone call, one email, or one source of anxiety. We have hundreds and the effect is cumulative.

The only way to effectively de-stress and recover is to get away. To take a vacation.

What is stress, mechanically speaking?

Credit: Mark GilesLike many physiological defense systems – shock, for example, or the complex reaction to burn injuries – the stress response is adaptive until it kills you. Under ancestral conditions, the stress response functioned as an overclocking mechanism; given an immediate, physical threat, the body redlines itself for the duration of the emergency.

As threats became abstracted and longer-lasting, the stress response proved dangerous. What works for short bursts of activity can run you into the ground when sustained over time. Yesterday’s “Lion! Run!” is today’s daily reality. We’re always plugged in, always pushing ourselves to do more, and almost always worried about something or another.

In case you needed more reasons to take a vacation, here’s what workday stress is doing to you, right now:

Credit: Dartmouth College

  • Something stresses you. This can be an unwelcome phone call, a disrupted routine, worries about the economy, or any of the myriad ways Murphy puts his fingers on the scales.
  • The hypothalamus preps you to redline with the release of two hormones: arginine-vassopressin (AVP) and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).
  • AVP decreases urine production and tightens your blood vessels. This spikes your blood pressure; same flow, smaller tubes.
  • CRH is detected by the anterior pituitary gland, triggering the release of corticotropin.
  • The adrenal gland, detecting corticotropin, starts turning cholesterol into cortisol.

These five interactions are collectively referred to as the HPA axis: hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal. Feedback from the environment and internal systems – systems like the part of you that’s always a little bit anxious about hitting deadlines – trigger the hypothalamus, which alerts the pituitary, which issues orders to the adrenal gland. Stress in, cortisol out.

Cortisol and You

Cortisol is akin to lead in gasoline: it’s quite good at what it does, but disproportionately harmful when it hangs around in the system. Primarily, cortisol affects blood sugar, memory, immune function, inflammatory pathways, and the hypothalamus.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • Cortisol increases blood sugar by triggering heightened glucose production. Ideally, it also stimulates the liver to produce glycogen (lowering blood sugar) and control the overclocking response, but this may fail under chronic stress.
  • The hippocampus – governing memory creation, storage, and retrieval – contains a number of cortisol receptors. Under a reasonable amount of stress, this causes you to retain clear memories of the environmental trigger; that’s just good sense. Under chronic stress, however, excess cortisol atrophies the hippocampus. While it can heal, given a decent vacation, memory and cognition will be impaired until the stress response halts long enough for maintenance.
  • Cortisol plays hell with the immune system by interfering with T-lymphocyte production and histamine secretion. T-lymphocytes are the immune system’s primary workhorse and the inflammation response – governed by histamine – partly exists to get them on site in a hurry. Decreased resources and hampered logistics makes you more vulnerable to infection and illness.
  • Finally, the presence of cortisol is supposed to signal the hypothalamus to pull back on CRH production and bring the stress response back under control. This works quit well in response to short term stress, but less so under chronic stress. If this inhibitory feedback breaks down, the HPA axis won’t be able to tell you’re already stressed out.

Chronically high cortisol levels are not good. You will be slow to heal and more susceptible to infection, your memory and cognition increasingly damaged, and your blood sugar difficult to control. Over the long term, cardiovascular problems and other complications from high blood pressure follow.

Burn out is the least of your worries. Chronic stress can break you at a metabolic level.

Take a Vacation, Please

As engineers, we know there are no perpetual systems. Stress, wear, and tear need to be repaired, or failure is inevitable. For some reason, we rarely apply this understanding to our own, physical selves, expecting to meet ever-greater demands based on drive and strength of character, alone.

Credit: MandolinMetabolically, this doesn’t work. You’ll wear out, function poorly, and die early, if you don’t take a vacation now and then.

Look, we’re not saying any of this to scare you or generate traffic. We do what we do because we value the contributions engineers make to society and humanity at large. Many of us literally cannot live without you; insulin pumps, power generation, cold chain food distribution systems, potable water… We need you rested, healthy, and ready, or much of the modern world will simply cease functioning.

So, please. Don’t let chronically high cortisol levels lead to heart disease and the collapse of modern society. Take a vacation.

You’ve earned it.