The Behaviorist: Time off is not time wasted

I am a little bit embarrassed to tell you that I took six weeks off. A six-week sabbatical with my husband – reading, writing, resting, reflecting, relaxing, drinking wine and coffee, enjoying the sunshine and some exercise, and sometimes doing nothing at all.

I am embarrassed because I recognize the rarity of taking this kind of time. Talking about it at all feels boastful and a bit millennial. Even as I type this, I can picture my step-dad rolling his eyes and wondering how on earth anyone can ride off into the sunset for six weeks and have a job to come back to at all.

And while I am incredibly grateful for a team that supported my request to tag along on my husband’s sabbatical, I don’t believe that my experience should be rare or embarrassing. We need to begin embracing a culture that supports this kind of time to disconnect. I have been more productive in the month since returning from my own sabbatical than I was in the previous six months combined and there is a slew of research which proves that time spent away from the office is good for individuals, for families, for the economy, and for business.

‘Always on’

I spend most of my time at the office surrounded by well-being research and working with stressed out high-achievers juggling ever growing to-do lists. I’m sure they would all love nothing more than to take my advice and drive off for some fun in the sun.

However, most also feel a strong sense of responsibility toward the people who work for them, the boards to whom they report and the impact they would like to achieve. Many find these responsibilities incompatible with extended breaks. Vacation is viewed as a luxury, making both leadership and staff hesitant to use paid time off.

This is generally true across the country. Americans take significantly less vacation than the rest of the developed world. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four weeks of paid vacation each year, and the average worker in France takes 30 days annually. Europe recognizes a value in vacation that we have not yet embraced. Here, where the average private sector worker earns just 16 paid vacation and holidays per year, individuals are using less and less of their allocated time over the last 15 years.

According to a study by Project: Time Off, in 2015 over half of working Americans with paid vacation did not use it all. This cultural tone is often set at the very top. According to Emma Seppala of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, 84 percent of executives in the U.S. report having cancelled vacations in order to work.

Unfortunately, this “always-on” mentality may be doing more harm than good. In addition to increasing rates of individual stress, burnout and strain on families, unused vacation time costs U.S. businesses $224 billion annually, and can unintentionally reduce overall productivity itself.

‘Take a vacation’

As I have studied workplace well-being, I have seen more and more research pointing to the benefits of time off, not only for the individual, but as an essential foundation for many of the highest-performing organizations. The research reveals that time spent away and disconnected from the office, leads to increases in dedication, enthusiasm, performance, stamina and creativity, as well as improved health (and thus fewer future absences). Our now largely knowledge-based economy requires this type of clear, energized and creative mind. Success in this type of economy is fueled by the very things that vacation provides.

A study featured in the Harvard Business Review in 2016 came to this same conclusion. According to the author, “statistically, taking more vacation results in greater success at work as well as lower stress and more happiness at work and home.”

In fact, the report found that workers who took more than 10 days of their vacation allowance per year, compared with those who took less than 10, were more than 30 percent more likely to receive a raise or bonus within a three-year period. Other research utilizing brain imaging has found that doing nothing for a period of time increases alpha waves in the brain that are necessary for creativity, insight and innovation. In another study of 13,000 middle-aged men, those who skipped vacation for five consecutive years were 30 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who took at least one week per year.

A separate study of working fathers found that 37 percent of them would consider taking a new job with less pay if it offered more work-life balance. Thus, organizations that value vacation are likely to benefit through lower turnover rates, fewer absences, and increased innovation, all of which positively impact the bottom line.

Take the time

My advice? Take a vacation. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be whatever sounds restful and meaningful to you. Go camping, travel, visit family or friends, sit on the beach, or run a marathon. But turn off your phone, put an away message on your email, and disconnect from your everyday patterns. Rest. Read. Write. Move. Sit. Recover. And come back rejuvenated, energized and passionate for the work that you do.

If you are a CEO, owner or manager, spend time intentionally crafting wise PTO policies that prioritize rest and recovery. Show your teams that you value this time and set the cultural tone by using the policies yourself. Come back with fresh eyes and new ideas. You won’t regret it, and neither will your organization.

Kate Coleman is an associate at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster. She focuses on preventing and managing stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. She can be reached at [email protected].