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Making time for time off

Making time for time off

By Teresa Meek

We all need time off from work to gain perspective and recharge our batteries. But Americans receive less vacation time than people in other countries, and we tend not to use all the days we have. New research suggests that’s bad for productivity, and ultimately, for the bottom line.

More Americans consider themselves “very vacation deprived” than employees in any other nation, a 2016 Expedia study found. U.S. employees receive an average of 15 vacation days and take only 12. Twenty-nine percent skip vacations for a year or more.

Compare that to workers in France, Germany and Italy, who average 30 days off and take 25 to 28. It’s not just Europeans — Brazilians receive an average of 30 days and take them all, as do workers in the United Arab Emirates.

It didn’t use to be this bad. For decades, Americans enjoyed more than 20 days off, but starting in 2000, vacation usage steadily declined, research by Project Time Off shows.

Not only are Americans not using all their days off, they’re connecting with the office from their beach chairs and mountain lodges. Thirty percent of people say they do a significant amount of work on vacation, a study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard found. In a survey of professionals by Accountemps, 41 percent admitted to checking in with the office at least once or twice during a vacation.

“Technology has made it so that we can work at any hour of any day,” says Michelle Gielan, a psychology researcher who studies the relationship between happiness and work performance. “Whether we’re physically sitting in the office or not, our brains are constantly churning through what we need to do at work.”

 

Good for you, good for business

Contrary to what many workers believe, taking time off is good for your career, Gielan’s research shows. “If you take 11 or more vacation days, you are 30 percent more likely to receive a promotion in the next year,” she says.

Vacations aid job performance. Gielan has found an attitude of optimism and positivity fuels sales increases by 37 percent and increases productivity by 31 percent. A refreshed outlook also diminishes headaches, backaches and fatigue by 23 percent.

“When you take the time to rest, it puts the brain in a positive state,” she says. “You see opportunities and connect with people in the workplace. That fuels engagement, performance and the bottom line.”

Roughly 28 percent of Americans say they are “more easily aggravated” at work if they don’t take enough vacation time, the Expedia study found.

One caveat: vacations planned at the last minute actually can cause stress. For best results, make reservations at least 30 days in advance, Gielan suggests.

 

Vacation obstacles

So why don’t Americans take full advantage of this remarkable source of renewal and success?

In the Accountemps study, 41 percent of workers were too worried about being overloaded when they returned to work from vacation. Additionally, 35 percent were concerned about dumping a heavy load on colleagues. In the Project Time Off study, 30 percent of people were afraid no one else could do their work while they were gone.

These fears are realistic, says Matthew Grawitch, a professor at St. Louis University who studies stress in the workplace. “Jobs that used to be performed by two to four people are now done by one. There are fewer people at work to share the burden, and it’s harder to take time off.”

Employees and managers need to work together to develop a plan for getting work done when someone takes time off, he says.

There’s another important factor — employees worry about job security, fearing managers will consider them slackers if they use their full vacation time. Such worries have increased as the employer-employee relationship has changed over the years, with less job stability and frequent downsizing, Grawitch says.

The deeply engrained American work ethic also plays a part.

“Germans will say if you don’t finish your work between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., you’re inefficient. For us, staying in the office after 6 p.m. is a badge of honor,” Gielan says.

 

Change starts at the top

For businesses to reap the productivity benefits of time off, the “always on” American work culture needs to change, experts say. Leaders and managers must actively promote vacation time and model the behavior themselves.

“A lot of managers don’t take vacation seriously — they see it as an add-on that only benefits the employee,” Grawitch says.

Instead, they should stress its benefits. Gielan says human resources staff should make a point of saying that vacations benefit the organization and encourage employees to use all their time off.

There’s a bottom-line benefit to making employees take vacations, too. While some companies have a “use it or lose it” policy, many allow employees to carry over vacation time indefinitely. The result is an accumulated  $224 billion in vacation time sitting on businesses’ balance sheets, according to Project Time Off.

Above all, leaders need to change their habit of equating performance with a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude.

“Getting more hours out of people is not the same as getting high performance,” Grawitch says. “The more employees have opportunities to recharge and explore other things that fulfil them, the more psychologically healthy they are, and the better workers they’ll be.”