We are only a few days from the end of summer. In New England, this means saying goodbye to another season filled with warm memories along the ocean, boat rides that make your hair salty, and closing up homes on the Cape and Islands to brace for winter. Most unfortunate of all, this signals an end to long weekends, family trips, and vacation time. Have you ever wondered if there are benefits to taking more vacation throughout the year? In today’s post, I’d like to examine the evidence for whether rest and vacation actually make us more productive.
To set up the context, I asked two questions about what American vacation-taking behavior actually looks like.
My first question was:
How does the U.S. compare to other countries in terms of paid leave and holiday time?
It turns out, the U.S. is the ONLY advanced economy that doesn’t mandate paid vacation time by law! According to a study conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2013, of all of the advanced economies examined, France provided the most paid vacation and paid holidays (31 total working days), and the U.S. provided none . Even Japan and Canada provided 10 paid vacation days by law.
Although it appears that three-quarters of Americans do get paid earned time , and that Americans are using more vacation than they used to (16.8 days per worker in 2016 compared to 16.0 days in 2014) , 54% of workers did not use all of their vacation time in 2016 . Another study shows that the average American only takes about half of their vacation time . This corresponded to 662 million unused vacation days!
In the U.S., Idaho was the leading state with 78% vacation time unused, followed by New Hampshire (77%) and Alaska (73%). Mainers used the most vacation (38%). There are also gender differences in making full use of vacation time, as women take less time off than men (48% to 44%), and report more guilt, stress of coming back to work, and being perceived as less committed to their jobs, compared to men, as being major factors for not taking more time off .
I followed up this line of inquiry with a second question:
How many Americans still work while on vacation—that is, is vacation even restful?
We all know those people in the office—in fact, it can even be a symbol of how hardworking you are and some bosses take it as evidence of being a hard worker. It all depends on how much your workplace values time spent working. My research revealed that 61% of Americans reported still working at least a little bit while on vacation.
Their most common reasons for doing this were: no one else can do the work (33%), fear of getting behind (28%), desire for promotion (19%), fear of losing job (17%), and wanting to outperform colleagues (13%). In addition, about 1 in 10 Americans (at least 18 years old working part-time or full-time) use their vacation time for interviewing for another job, and this ratio increases for younger Americans ages 18-34 to 1 in 5 Americans . Thus, it appears that even when vacation time is taken, it may not be very restful. Results from my first two questions support the idea that Americans live in a country that doesn’t reward them for taking time off, that they don’t tend to take time off, and when they do, a majority of them have trouble completely de-plugging.
So does vacation time actually improve productivity?
This was quite a difficult question to answer. The problem was within how we define productivity. If you define productivity on a very basic level as just being the average number of hours you worked, you’re missing out on how many those hours actually translate to outcomes. Or, if you define productivity in its traditional economic sense—output per unit labor—then you get a slightly better sense of efficiency because you’re accounting for the output.
A great example of this kind of productivity is the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. But it is well-known that the U.S. has the highest GDP per capita in the world, and the U.S. has no paid vacation law. Defined in this light, it would appear that taking vacation really has no relationship to productivity, on a national level. However, this bears little application to our work week, so let’s try to move away from population-level statistics and just think about ways to define productivity in our workplace.
At the hospital where I work, productivity is measured by how many patients I can see (billable visits) over time. What’s problematic about this definition is that we know that it doesn’t account for all of the work we do behind the scenes that may not result in a billable visit, nor for the fact that patients with illness tend to not come in for their appointments due to their illness.
So what if we came up with a new measure of productivity that accounted for efficiency (output per unit labor), as well as the quality of our work? In healthcare, differences in quality of care can mean a shorter length of illness, shorter recovery, less distress, and even a longer life expectancy.
Let’s use pay as a proxy for quality of work produced. From this perspective, not taking vacation DOES appear to be related to poor productivity. For example, data show that compared to people who took fewer than 10 of their vacation days who had a 34.6% likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus in a 3-year period, people who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65.4% likelihood of getting a raise or bonus .
There is also evidence that people who subscribe to the “work martyr” mindset don’t actually get ahead at work—they report more stress at home and work, and aren’t more likely to get a raise or bonus, compared to non-work martyrs . Even if our productivity is not actually suffering in the near-term, working more may be more stressful which will have negative long-term health effects, and affect your lifetime productivity. Indeed, data from the famous Framingham Heart Study conducted in the 1960’s showed that women who took vacation every six years or less, were almost eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or heart attack, than their counterparts who took vacation twice a year !!! Thus, if we are to account for all of the soft factors that impact long-term productivity, such as stress and burnout, the answer is clear that not taking vacation time is associated with being less productive.
Vacations are healthy!
Even though summer is over, I would advise everyone to take multiple vacations per year, take measures to really de-plug while on vacation, craft an out-of-office message in advance, and allow their minds to focus on anything non-work-related.
1. Ray, R., Sanes, M., Schmitt, J. (2013). No-vacation nation revisited. Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy and Research.
2. Project Time Off. “An assessment of paid time off in the U.S.” https://www.projecttimeoff.com/research/assessment-paid-time-us
3. Project Time Off. “The State of American Vacation 2017.” https://www.projecttimeoff.com/state-american-vacation-2017
4. Project Time Off. “Under-Vacationed America: An Analysis of the States and Cities that Need to Take a Day.” https://www.projecttimeoff.com/research/under-vacationed-america-analysis-states-and-cities-need-take-day
5. Glassdoor Q1 2014 Employee Confidence Survey
6. Project Time Off. “The State of American Vacation: How Vacation Became a Casualty of our Work Culture.” https://www.projecttimeoff.com/research/state-american-vacation-2016
7. Eaker, E. D., Pinsky, J., & Castelli, W. P. (1992). Myocardial infarction and coronary death among women: Psychosocial predictors from a 20-year follow-up of women in the Framingham Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 135, 854-864.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Expert Psychologist