Managing Engineers

Vacation is Mandatory: Mental Health, Productivity, and Why Your Employees Need to Unplug

July 29, 2014

Only one-third of summer, that 98-day window bookended by Memorial Day and Labor Day in the US, remains. Have your employees taken a vacation yet?

Have you encouraged them to?

The good news is that 52% of Americans are confident they’ll take a vacation this year, up nearly 5 percentage points from 2013. But this also means a whopping 48% won’t take a meaningful break from work this summer. And according to Glassdoor, “while most employees may be using at least some of their earned vacation time, three in four are not taking all of it.”

GlassDoor 2014 Vacation BreakdownOnly 25% of your company will use all of their time off this year and 15% won’t take a single day off. This is terrible news for your employees’ mental health and productivity – and your company’s bottom line.

Rest is Key to Mental Health & Productivity.

We tend to group the words “happy, healthy, productive” together rather than discuss them in isolation. This is not an accident. With meaningful breaks away from work we are free to relax, recharge – and the result is improved health.

Working without a break is a precursor to chronic stress – in fact, 69% of employees report that work, specifically, is a significant source of stress. Chronic stress puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including: anxiety, depression, heart disease, obesity and memory/concentration impairment. Which may explain why the cost of health care has been found to be “46% higher for employees with high levels of stress” and, according to a study by Middle Tennessee State University, American businesses spend $344 billion on stress-related health care alone. When it comes to your employees’ mental health, productivity and output, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

So we’ve established that stress effects the health of individuals and employers’ bottom line. How do we wrest ourselves from the cycle of overwork and chronic stress to lead happier, healthier, more productive lives – and how can we encourage our employees to do the same?

The first step to convince your employees to take a break is to understand and preempt why they (probably) aren’t taking one.

Why We Aren’t Using Our Time Off

Reasons for Not Taking Vacation

Oxford Economics “An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the U.S.” (Feb 2014)

Heavy Workloads Are the Most Significant Barrier to Taking Time Off

The foremost reason people don’t take vacation time isn’t lack of money or benefit opportunity – it’s the perception that they have “too much work to do,” according to a 2014 survey by Oxford Economics.

There’s a Financial Incentive to Not Take Vacation

Perhaps the most concerning finding from this study, a large percentage of the surveyed population indicated they plan not to use their vacation time for the express purpose of cashing it in at the end of the year. Not only aren’t your employees attending to their mental health for financial reasons, these employees will be less productive and more susceptible to illness – resulting in later absenteeism or, worse, presenteeism.

“Saving it Up.”

Children, school, and your spouse’s schedule can make planning a vacation stressful unto itself. But psychological research indicates more frequent breaks are actually much more beneficial than taking a single, long vacation for stress reduction. Bottom line: frequency is more important than duration.

6 Ways to Encourage your Employees to Take Time Off

1 – Don’t Incentivize Overwork

By removing the financial incentive to not take vacation, you eliminate the largest obstacle to your employees taking it. This is a high-level policy change, but employers whose benefits programs allow employees to cash out their vacation time or roll it over to the next year foster an over-worked, stressed-out (and ultimately unhealthy) staff.

2 – Arm them with Facts: If you take a Vacation, you will be more Productive.

Randstad conducted a quantitative study last month that found 67% of workers felt more productive after returning from vacation.

Joe Robinson, author of Don’t Miss Your Life, points out “engaged recreation is one of the world’s best stress buffers, no doubt why an annual vacation cuts the risk of heart attack in men by 30 percent and by 50 percent in women who take more than one vacation a year.”

Simply put, mental health and well-being depends on having enough time to pursue activities that promote well-being. Or as research conducted by Dr. Tim Kasser found, “as work time increases and leisure time decreases, negative emotions and health problems increase and life satisfaction plummets.”

3 – Lead From the Front: Use Your Vacation Time

The most powerful way to encourage your employees to use their vacation time is, you guessed it, by example. Set the tone by using your allotted vacation time and disconnecting. Which leads us to this too-important-to-be-overstated-point:

4 – Disconnect for Maximum Effect

Vacations can be a wellspring of creativity, with one important caveat: we must be disconnected. As the NYT succinctly states, “Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime.”

Last year, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, observed brain activity in rats as they scurried around in unfamiliar terrain. The exploration sparked new patterns in their brains, but memories of the experience were only created once they stopped, suggesting that the brain needs a break from the bustle in order to make new information useful and relevant.

Assistant professor at UCSF Loren Frank told the New York Times that when the brain is constantly stimulated, as it is with digital devices, “you prevent the learning process.”

5 – Be Proactive with Millennials

Randstad’s survey also uncovered Millennials and Generation Y work on vacation more than their older counterparts – and tend to feel guilty about taking all their vacation days. (While only 18% of Baby Boomers feel guilty about taking all their vacation days, this number skyrocketed to 40% for Millennials.) These members of your staff are the newest and likely working hard for approval; but they will likely be responsive to a little individualized attention.

Ask them what they are doing for vacation this year – or where they plan on going. If your staff member indicates they have no plans to go on vacation (or take a meaningful break from work) – use it is an opportunity to discuss and, hopefully, resolve the workplace issues that are impeding them from attending to their health.

6 – The Nuclear Option: Make Vacation Mandatory.

The U.S. has no federal laws guaranteeing paid time off, sick leave, or even a break for national holidays. In contrast, the European Union mandates 20 days of paid vacation.

Startup culture is leading the charge to undo this trend by making vacation time mandatory. In example, TED has given all of its employees a mandatory two-week summer vacation. Side benefit? Their “group vacation” format means there are fewer emails and piles to catch up on when you get back. Per June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, “The impact on morale, productivity, and overall happiness is stunning. Plus . . . imagine how relieving it is to take a two-week vacation when all your work email stops.”


Psstt… There may be a Best Type of Vacation.

Your company’s innovators – engineers, programmers, and anyone tasked with inventing creative solutions to problems – need breathing room to effectively create. And if current research is to be believed – there is a “best” vacation type to facilitate their creativity.

Go abroad.

In “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity“, Drs. Maddux and Galinsky show there’s a linear relationship between creativity and new, novel experience:

“This shows us that there is some sort of psychological transformation that needs to occur when people are living in a foreign country in order to enhance creativity. This may happen when people work to adapt themselves to a new culture.”

“Knowing that experiences abroad are critical for creative output makes study abroad programs and job assignments in other countries that much more important, especially for people and companies that put a premium on creativity and innovation to stay competitive.”

Photo Credit: Aristocrats-hat