Skip to main content

The Great Vacation Evasion


Getting Americans in the habit of taking more time away from work is a legitimate movement, supported by a truckload of evidence

As we all get back into the swing of work after the long Labor Day weekend, it’s worth noting that Americans aren’t the biggest fans of taking vacations. Our labor-intensive society has made us one of the richest economies in the world, but unlike our similar rich neighbors, America gives its workers no guarantees for things like vacation time, paternity leave, or sick leave. It’s turning us into what the Today Show dubbed a “No Vacation Nation.”

The Power of Down Time

Getting Americans in the habit of taking more time away from work is a legitimate movement, supported by a truckload of evidence that suggests overworking ourselves could be causing more harm to organizations than good. It’s certainly intuitive to think that working more hours leads to more productivity, but in actuality those returns begin to diminish if employees aren’t getting much-needed renewal time to refresh their bodies and minds. Tony Schwartz of the New York Times explains part of the dilemma:

“Spending more hours at work often leads to less time for sleep and insufficient sleep takes a substantial toll on performance. In a study of nearly 400 employees, published last year, researchers found that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burn-out. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.”

We all could use a vacation, and not just the two-to-three day “micro-vacations” or “stay-cations” that are increasingly becoming the preferred option for most American workers. Unsurprisingly, the length and quality of vacations can greatly affect on-the-job performance. Research has shown that longer vacations yielded a whopping 82% productivity boost for employees upon returning to the office.  To quantify it further, Ernst & Young did an internal study in 2006 and found that for every 10 additional hours of vacation their employees took, their year-end performance ratings by supervisors increased by 8%.

I Need You Out of the Office

More vacation time increases the wellbeing and productivity of your workers, but getting them to actually take that time is a different problem. Americans are still more likely to push themselves further to get the job done before taking a break, which can quickly lead to burnout. Indeed, a recent study discovered that Americans left an average of 3.2 vacation days unused in 2013, totaling 429 million unused days. This has forced some companies to try more unorthodox incentives to encourage employees to unplug and relax for a change, but it can be more difficult than it sounds:

Data-backup firm Evernote instituted “unlimited” vacation days in 2011, but the employees began to suspect it was clever reverse psychology to get them to take fewer vacation days. CEO Phil Libin had to eventually step in, and he clarified what he meant by tacking on a $1,000 incentive for employees to go on vacation for at least a week.

Cloud-based software provider FullContact’s CEO Bart Lorang made a huge internal shift on vacations after returning from a trip to Egypt and seeing a photo of himself checking his cell phone atop a camel in front of the Giza Pyramids. His epiphany was that no employee should have to work during their vacation, something he calls “misguided hero syndrome”. “You need to be up and running, or nothing works without you,” Lorang explains. “It’s almost like this adrenaline rush, brought on by the fact that people need you 24/7. That’s why he offers a $7,500 incentive for employees to take vacations, under the strict conditions that they take at least a week or longer, and turn off all their work-related devices for the duration—tough decisions all around.

Working on Hardly Working

More vacation time for workers also has hidden benefits for the US economy as a whole. Oxford Economics surmised that if American workers decided to take their unused vacation days and traveled, it would reap $73 billion in travel spending, in addition to the projected $160 billion in and $21 billion in business sales and tax revenues, respectively. All of this begs the question: why are we the “No Vacation Nation” if there is virtually no downside to working less?

The power of more leisure time is something we’ve known since 1914 when Henry Ford saw that establishing a 40-hour work week increased the productivity of his assembly line workers by giving them more time disconnect, recharge, and come back fresh. Nowadays our work week averages about 47 hours, so we should all start thinking about taking a nice break.