The Data-Driven Case for Vacation
Harvard Business Review, Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan
July 13, 2016
Over the past three years, we have partnered with the U.S. Travel Association to more clearly understand the relationship between well-being and taking time off from work. Our hypothesis has been that without recovery periods, our ability to continue performing at high levels diminishes significantly. This is in direct conflict with the common misconception that the longer you persevere at work, the more successful you will become.
Our previous HBR articles outlined our research into what kind of vacations create a positive effect, debunking the idea that people who don’t take their vacation time get ahead. But a new research study, released this month by the U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off, presents a high-definition picture of how overwork affects our success rates and well-being.
In the study, 5,641 adult Americans who work more than 35 hours a week and receive paid time off from their employers were asked a series of questions designed to understand their perception of time off and the impacts on various business or health measures. Oxford Economics then used the results, combined with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Current Population Survey, to estimate levels of historical vacation activity. (A 24-month moving average was used to eliminate short-term fluctuations in the data.) The finding was that Americans used to take almost three weeks of vacation a year (20.3 days) in 2000, but they took only 16.2 days of vacation in 2015. Over the past 15 years, Americans have lost nearly a week of vacation. How low will that number go?
The question that needs to be asked is whether we are more productive and successful with fewer days, or whether work is getting in the way of our success. Statistically, taking more vacation results in greater success at work as well as lower stress and more happiness at work and home.
So why aren’t we using more vacation time? At first glance, one might think that a scarcity of jobs or lack of job security might be leading people to believe they always need to be at work. But the data does not support that.
During 1982 and 2010, the two years since 1981 with the highest unemployment, people still used an average of 20.9 days of vacation. In 2015 the unemployment rate was 5.3% (it was 9.7% in 1982), and yet 2015 had one of the lowest averages of time off taken in the past 30 years: 16.2 days. There may be lots of reasons for this, but clearly unemployment rate does not directly correlate with time taken off.
As we consider what was happening during 2000–2015, we can’t help but think of the cornucopia of time-saving technologies that were created during the information and cell phone revolutions. But rather than technology helping people work less, allowing for more downtime and time off, nearly half of office-based workers say technology has actually increased the amount of time they spend working, according to the Pew Research Center.
At a recent conference we attended, a major social media app’s spokesman proudly asked the audience of technophiles, “Do you remember the last time you were bored with nothing to do? You’re welcome.” That’s true, but here’s the corollary: “Do you remember the last time you were okay with just doing nothing?” All of us are too steeped in a productivity culture to value doing nothing (which is why we, personally, struggle with our meditation practice). But we’re losing out on crucial recovery time that our bodies and brains need — which is why vacations are so very important.
In a previous HBR article, we pointed out that the average vacation does not improve energy levels or reduce stress. Poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the benefits of time away.
We also found that if you plan ahead, create social connections on the trip, go far from your work, and feel safe, 94% of vacations have a good ROI in terms of your energy and outlook upon returning to work. Just make sure you plan the trip at least a month in advance, as one of the key predictors of vacation ROI is the amount of stress caused by not planning ahead.
It’s not a lack of desire that’s keeping us from taking vacations. Project: Time Off’s new study found that 95% of people surveyed claimed that using their paid time off was very important. And yet for the first time in recorded history, more than half of Americans (55%) left vacation days unused, which equates to 658 million unused vacation days. Take a moment for that number to set in. Imagine the impact those vacations could have on the U.S. economy — on airlines, hotels, restaurants, attractions, and towns — not to mention the impact it would have on individuals’ stress levels.
Remember, this is paid time off that is not being used. Let us ask you two questions to make this idea come alive: Would you do your job for free? And do you take all your vacation days? If you say no to the first, you had better say yes to the second.
In truth, if you are not taking all your time off, you’re not working more — you’re volunteering your time. This is our favorite conclusion from the study: “By giving up this time off, Americans are effectively volunteering hundreds of millions of days of free work for their employers, which results in $61.4 billion in forfeited benefits.” Stop overworking for free!
Here is the cherry on top. Many people have become work martyrs, thinking if they give and give, they will be more successful. But it doesn’t play out that way.
In NBC’s The Office, while trying to get a promotion from his boss Michael Scott, the awkward and overeager Dwight Schrute shows a spreadsheet documenting that he has never been late and has never taken a day off from work. He does not get the promotion. And that is exactly what the data bears out.
People who took fewer than 10 of their vacation days per year had a 34.6% likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus in a three-year period of time. People who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65.4% chance of receiving a raise or bonus.
If you take 11 or more of your vacation days, you are more than 30% more likely to receive a raise. After reading that stat, we hope you just started planning your next vacation.
We love reading blogs on productivity research, but one of our running jokes is how each article gives you a list of three more things you have to be doing to be successful. You read three articles and you now have nine more “to-dos” each day. But the conclusion of this article and all of our research isn’t complicated: Go on vacation. If you take all your vacation days and plan ahead for trips, you will increase your happiness, success rate, and likelihood of promotion, and you’ll lower your stress level to boot.
So here’s one easy takeaway for you: Go away.