Anja van den Berg
When you’re really lost in a task or project, the ideas are flowing and you feel great. But it doesn’t last forever – stretch yourself just a bit beyond that productivity limit and you may feel unfocused, blocked and irritable.
A growing body of evidence shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves productivity and creativity, and that skipping breaks can lead to stress and exhaustion. Yet, an Ipsos/Reuters survey across a number of countries shows that only two thirds of employees actually use all of their vacation days.
Why employees are not taking time off
Another study of office workers and managers by Staples discovered that even though 66% of employees spend more than eight hours a day at work, more than a quarter of them don’t take a break other than lunch. One in five employee respondents said guilt was the reason they didn’t step away from their workspaces.
Professor John P Trougakos, a specialist in business management, says people often feel guilty for taking breaks during office hours, especially when they haven’t completed their to-do lists for the day. The same goes for taking a holiday or annual leave. “Wherever you are based – if you’re someone who is running your own company, working independently, or billing by the hour – time off can mean losing clients or forgoing earnings.”
Salaried employees at stable companies with paid vacation time could legitimately feel they can’t leave the office for an extended period. Monica Worline, affiliate faculty at the Center for Positive Organisations at the University of Michigan, explains that this phenomenon reflects the pressure of the modern labour market. “The most common reason given in these circumstances is the possible repercussions of taking time off. What if they are replaced or seen as irresponsible? What if their colleagues and competitors outperform them? What if major problems happen while they are away? What if their bosses question their commitment?”
However, employees have to detach from their work and their workspace to recharge their internal resources. “It’s shortsighted not to take this time, or for managers to discourage employees from taking it,” says Trougakos.
All work and no play
Cutting into vacation time is actually detrimental to both organisations and their employees both in terms of financial and productivity costs. Research conducted by Professor Sabine Sonnentag, a specialist in the field of Work and Organisational Psychology, suggests that detaching from the daily grind is essential to enhance productivity. Her research results have shown that people who do not detach from work suffer greater levels of exhaustion and unproductivity. Those who do disconnect from their daily employment responsibilities are more likely to have higher engagement levels at work, exhibit creative thinking and show initiative.
A survey commissioned by Sam’s Club found that nearly 50% of small business owners take only major holidays off, or nothing at all. The result was exhaustion, poor decision-making, impatience and even illness. Allowing yourself a vacation is one of the best things you can do for yourself, and possibly your business.
When it comes to productivity and concentration, everyone has a different capacity. According to Dr James A Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, management should encourage employees to devise individually effective break routines. He also offers some general guidelines. “Try working in intense 15-minute bursts, punctuated by breaks, in cycles that are repeated throughout the day.”
Belinda Goldsmith, 2010, “French most likely to use all vacation, Japanese least: poll”, Reuters,
Courtney Seiter, 2014, “The Science of Taking Breaks at Work: How to Be More Productive By Changing the Way You Think About Downtime”, Buffer, https://open.bufferapp.com/science-taking-breaks-at-work/
Emma Seppala, 2015, “If You Can’t Take a Vacation, Get the Most Out of Minibreaks”, Harvard Business Review, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/08/06/us-vacations-poll-idUSTRE6753LI20100806
Kevin Daum, 2014, “Why You Need to Take a Vacation (Even When You Can’t Afford One)”, Inc.com, http://www.inc.com/kevin-daum/why-you-need-to-take-a-vacation-even-when-you-can-t-afford-one.html
Phyllis Korkki, 2012, “To Stay on Schedule, Take a Break”, New York Times: Job Market,