There’s something elementally magical about summer evenings. With a cool breeze in my face, the sound of crickets chirping, and a faint saltwater taste from an evening swim, I rest my eyes on a calming view of sea and islands. Behind me are four blissful weeks of summer vacation.
Some never take a long vacation. Others do, but feel guilty about it. Yet, I’d argue it’s one of the largest productivity boosts of my year. I feel this to be true, but it got me thinking:
What does research say – do vacations boost productivity?
Turns out, vacations are not only good for you and your health – they’re crucial for your work performance. Here’s why:
1 | You return refreshed and re-energized
This is often the main reason we go on vacation. The daily grind makes us feel overwhelmed, exhausted, out of energy. I admit to getting the “June-jitters” – a general feeling of unease, when my body is simply craving some downtime in the Finnish archipelago.
“The idleness vacations provide is a necessary condition to recharge our batteries”
Vacations give us a chance to catch our breath. Research overwhelmingly agrees. Studies on employee recovery generally find that vacations increase wellbeing and engagement (1). For example, teachers who took a two-week vacation returned not only feeling less tired and emotionally burned out, but also more engaged and positive about their work (2). For Israeli factory workers levels of stress and absenteeism fell for four weeks following a vacation (3). The idleness vacations provide is a necessary condition to recharge our batteries.
2 | You’re more results-focused
Are you familiar with the “vacation effect”? This is at least what happens to me: a few weeks before vacation work feels insurmountable. Then magically, on the eve of vacation, projects are wrapped, reports are written, the rest is delegated, and (at least in my house) laundry is done. Vacation is a hard deadline. And that’s a major motivator to getting things done.
Interestingly, research backs this up. A study published in the Harvard Business Review surveyed 2,310 employees from 20 countries, and found that leaders in countries with more paid vacation days seem slightly more likely to work at a faster pace and feel more impatient (4). The authors reflected: “having more vacation time seems to help employees better understand the importance of being impatient for results and getting as much done as possible … spending less time at your desk forces you to waste less time”. In summary: when the beach is calling – action points get done.
“Vacation is a hard deadline. And that’s a major motivator to getting things done”
3 | Downtime sparks creativity
When do you get your best ideas? I’m guessing “the office”, “a meeting”, or “after a long workweek” aren’t at the top of that list. Creativity can be described as our brain’s ability to make connections between different ideas. But when we’re stuck in our routine, our brain gets stuck too.
Brain researchers have found that novelty both motivates the brain to explore, as well as improves our learning (5). What counts as novelty? Probably anything that isn’t weekly reporting or doing the dishes. For example, one study had participants disconnect from all digital devices and hike in nature for four days. Upon returning, they had a 50 percent spike in creativity (6). So even a shorter vacation, done well, can give you an immense boost in creativity.
4 | Distance helps us see the bigger picture
This is one of the more surprising vacation benefits for me. I get back to work, I look at the work I left off, and I think: “What the hell?”. Well, maybe less dramatic, but there’s always one or two things that come off as a) useless, b) in need of a little re-scoping, or c) something important I’ve missed when focused on the details. A 2011 study (7) illustrates this benefit of sporadic breaks: goal reactivation. Picking up where you left off forces you to take a moment to think globally about what you’re trying to achieve.
So by working too hard, you may be working too hard on the wrong things. By going on vacation, you help yourself take a step back and see the whole. Just as “distance makes the heart grow fonder” so too distance makes the brain grow sharper.
“By working too hard, you may be working too hard on the wrong things. By going on vacation you help yourself take a step back and see the whole”
5 | You get fresh work motivation
I was once at a point in my life where I thought: “I can’t keep doing this, I think I’ll quit”. But I didn’t. Instead I took a 4-week vacation. After a pile of books, many glasses of chablis, a few crazy trips and countless hours reflecting in a hammock, I returned to work. And I ended up happily staying for three more years.
A proper vacation helps us reset and re-motivate. For example, internal research by Ernst & Young showed that vacations helped slow down employee turnover: every 40 hours of free time extended employees’ stay with the company by eight months (8). So by giving employees time off, you may actually be getting more time from each employee.
“HR data of 125,000 US employees found that high performing employees took an average of 19 vacation days, compared to individuals with lower marks who took only 14”
6 | You boost your performance
So, in addition to the benefits above, is there a direct link that says “more vacation means better performance”? Indeed there is. In the EY study, Maryella Gockel, flexibility strategy leader at EY, said: “for each 10 vacation hours a person took, we found that performance reviews were 8 percent higher”. Another study looking at HR data of 125,000 US employees found that high performing employees took an average of 19 vacation days, compared to individuals with lower marks who took only 14 (9).
Naturally, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causality. It may indeed be that more vacation leads to higher performance. But it may also be the reverse: that high performance makes you feel less guilty about going on vacation. (Or it may be something else, for example that creative individuals with great social skills and high tenure are both better performers AND take more vacation.) The definitive research is still out on this one.
Whatever the case, if you want to feel refreshed, be more results-focused and creative, see the bigger picture and get a healthy boost of motivation (or if you want that for your employees) – then a vacation is a good bet. The space and quiet of vacation sets the stage for that magical summer evening strike of inspiration, and interestingly, it is for many a necessary condition for getting any work done.
– Nora, Co-Founder and COO of Fifth Corner Inc., creators of YOU-app
So what can you do? A performance-boosting vacation begins months in advance. Here are two micro-actions to make the most of your time off:
LOCK IN YOUR NEXT VACATION
Not all vacations are created equal, and research has found that poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the other positive benefits of time away. The good news: 94% of “good” vacations have a positive ROI in terms of energy, and a key predictor is to plan ahead, thus reducing the last-minute stress. (10)
So whether you’re in the middle of a crunch or on your first day back from vacation, take some time and plan in your next vacation – right away.
SCHEDULE TIME FOR THE BIG PICTURE
After a long vacation it’s tempting to jump into the whirls of work and start fighting fires. But you (and your work) will be better off if you resist the temptation to start with the details and instead book enough time, e.g. a full day of focus-time to 1) clear out your inbox (which is probably overflowing!) and 2) planning out your priorities for the next few months. Only then turn off your out-of-office and let your colleagues know you’re available.
1: Psychological Detachment From Work During Leisure Time: The Benefits of Mentally Disengaging From Work; Sabine Sonnentag, Current Directions in Psychological Science; First Published March 20, 20122: How long do you benefit from vacation? A closer look at the fade‐out of vacation effects; J Kühnel, S Sonnentag; Journal of Organizational Behavior 32 (1), 125-143
3: The impact of vacation and job stress on burnout and absenteeism, Mina Westman &Dalia Etzion, Psychology & Health, Vol 16, issue 5, 2001, p 595-606, Published online: 19 Dec 2007 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08870440108405529#.U_0ATMVdWbO
4: Are we more productive when we have more time off? By Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Harvard Business Review, June 17, 2015 https://hbr.org/2015/06/are-we-more-productive-when-we-have-more-time-off
5: Cell Press. (2006, August 27). Pure Novelty Spurs The Brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 1, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/08/060826180547.html
6: Ruth Ann Atchley, David L. Strayer, Paul Atchley. Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (12): e51474 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
7: Ariga A1, Lleras A.: Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements; Cognition. 2011 Mar;118(3):439-43. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007. Epub 2011 Jan 5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21211793
8: Reported by CNBC, Bob Sullivan, 27 Aug 2014: Want a raise? Try taking a vacation https://www.cnbc.com/2014/08/27/vacations-help-you-get-ahead-at-work-ey.htm
9: Namely: The Secret For Boosting Employee Performance? Vacation Time by Andy Przystanski, June 22, 2017 https://blog.namely.com/blog/boost-employee-performance-vacation-time
10: Harvard Business Review “When a Vacation Reduces Stress and When it Doesn’t”