It’s an open secret that Americans work more days of the year than many other workers around the world. When we do go on vacation, we often fail to maximize the benefits by either cutting our vacations short or trying to do too much while on vacation. What is most surprising is the growing evidence that our inability to take real vacations may be compromising our productivity, creativity, and ability to have the most impact.
UNUSED VACATION DAYS ARE BAD FOR BUSINESS
In the developed world, the U.S. is a true outlier in mandating paid vacation days. While French employers must offer 30 paid vacation days, U.S. employers don’t need to offer paid leave days at all. What is more shocking is that even when they do, employees often fail to take advantage of the benefit. In 2017, the U.S. Travel Association found that U.S. workers had failed to use approximately 705 million vacation days.
Naturally, one might assume that those 705 million unused vacation days make us a more productive nation. But this isn’t necessarily the case. As Neil Pasricha and Shashank Nigam reported in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, forcing employees to go on vacation seems to lead to an uptick in creativity, happiness, and productivity in the workplace. Similarly, a 2018 study carried out by the American Psychology Association found that a majority of working adults self-reported positive effects when they returned to work after a vacation, including increased energy (66%), increased productivity (58%), increased motivation (57%), and lower stress (57%).
But this still leaves an obvious question: Why does taking time off make us more creative, happy, and productive upon return?
THE POWER OF REFLECTION AND PERSPECTIVE
One explanation for the correlation between taking time off and increased productivity is that vacation provides us with time to reflect. When we’re running fast and hard, we often resort to doing the same thing time and time again and yet expect different results. Ideally, reflection is something we weave into our everyday life and don’t simply go on vacation. Still, a vacation—especially one that takes us offline and even away from everyday environments and rhythms—can be a powerful way to amplify our ability to reflect, step back, and get perspective.
HOW LEADERS CAN PROMOTE THE BENEFITS OF TAKING TIME OFF
• Offer ample vacation time as a benefit: If your organization doesn’t offer paid vacation days, consider the return on investment for doing so. If you already offer paid vacation days, consider extending this benefit, especially given compelling evidence that it may lead to higher levels of productivity and retention, offering an attractive return.
• Implement policies to protect vacation time: Some companies now go to great extremes to force employees to take real vacations (e.g., by blocking access to work email). Whether you choose to adopt such tactics or take another route, review your policies and create clear contracting on vacation time. After all, it is widely accepted that if you want your team to reap the full rewards of going on vacation, they need to be able to truly unplug and relax.
• Track the impact of increasing paid vacation time: Track how your vacation time policies impact productivity, innovation, and retention levels across your organization over time.
• Lead by example: As a leader, one of the best things you can do is take a vacation yourself in order to send out a clear message that taking time off is a necessary step one must take to recharge and reflect. To do this, block off time when you’re not only not at work, but also unavailable. Understandably, this is bound to be challenging for some leaders since it requires a high level of trust in one’s team members, as well as one’s established systems and structures.
For many U.S. leaders, taking longer and more protected vacations may feel counterintuitive. However, given the compelling evidence that vacations support increased productivity, innovation, and retention, there are many reasons to rethink our entrenched relationship with taking time off. And yes, I will be walking my talk this summer. While I do plan on working for most of the summer, I have also taken steps to delegate more of my ongoing work with clients to a trusted member of my team and to go offline for at least a few more days than I have in any recent summer.
Dr. Camille Preston is a business psychologist, leadership expert, and the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership.