Let me preface this article by saying that it is a huge privilege to have paid time off (PTO) at all. Many people work low-wage or hourly jobs where they don’t; that is terrible in its own right, but that’s a post for another day.
But for Americans who are lucky enough to have jobs that offer paid time off, many of them don’t take it. According to “An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the U.S.” a study commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, and completed by Oxford Economics., as many as 40% of Americans who have PTO took zero – that’s right, zero – vacation days in 2013, leaving a total of 429 million unused days for U.S. workers.
For many people, it might be that they can’t afford a vacation. But let’s put aside the idea that time off work necessarily equals going on a “vacation” where one travels away from home. People can easily take a staycation, as I’ve written before, and utilize PTO to take a much needed break from work without upending their budgets. Or even take a random day off here and there because they just need a break, which I like to call “Mental Health Days.” But they still don’t.
We can speculate as to why this happens. Maybe it’s a fear of coming back to a mountain of work. Maybe it’s reluctance due to a corporate culture that looks down on taking vacation days (despite company proclamations that they “care” about work/life balance). The U.S. Travel Association study noted that nearly 34 percent of employees surveyed indicated that their employer neither encouraged nor discouraged leave, but 17 percent of managers considered employees who take all of their leave to be less dedicated employees. Or perhaps Americans want to be martyrs who wear “busy” like a badge of honor, and taking time off is seen as lazy. For some, according to the study, their heavy workload simply prevents them from taking time off. I’m sure the reasons are varied.
But numerous studies have demonstrated that using PTO stimulates the economy, and is better for worker productivity and well-being. I won’t get into the economic benefits of taking PTO since I’m not an economics expert, though a simple google search will lead you to many studies showing that to be the case. Let’s focus on the two things that affect the worker as an individual: productivity and health.
As for productivity, we all tend to labor under the misapprehension that more hours working means more work accomplished. In fact, the evidence demonstrates the complete opposite: to be an effective worker, don’t work too much.
Back in the 1920’s, car manufacturer extraordinaire Henry Ford did something revolutionary for the time. He decreased his employees’ work weeks from 6 days to 5 days, decreasing their working hours from 48 to 40. Ford did this after realizing that employee productivity dropped significantly after 40 hours, and they could accomplish just as much in 5 days of work as they could in 6. Now, this might seem like a liberal policy approach, but this was motivated purely by profit.
That being said, Ford was onto something. Numerous studies show that weekly productivity diminishes past the 40 hour mark, and pretty much cliff-dives once you get past 50 hours. We aren’t meant to sustain a constant or extended output of mental energy; we can push hard for a certain period of time, but then need to recharge. Take working overtime, for instance. While an overtime push usually creates a large output of work in the short term, it’s almost always followed by a “hangover” period for several days afterward, where productivity decreases significantly. And working more than 50 hours a week does not generally increase productivity, either. Any of us who have pulled all-nighters at the office or worked 60, 70, or 80 hour weeks can attest to this. It makes more sense to work reasonable hours week to week, which facilitates routinely high output, than to crank out overtime and suffer from peaks and valleys in productivity.
Not only does productivity increase with mental breaks, but the quality of the work is better. This study demonstrated that brief mental respites from work results in better quality of work with fewer mistakes. Trying to sustain a constant stream of attention without interruption causes a depletion of mental resources over time. To put it another way: burn out leads to crappy work product.
Taking this past the arguments for shorter work weeks and the occasional day of rest, what about prolonged absences, like week-long vacations? Wouldn’t that automatically result in less productivity since you’re away from work for extended periods of time? The short answer is no. The longer answer is nope.
Extended breaks may, in the short term, result in slightly decreased productivity for the time you are away, but they more than make up for it in better job performance overall. We tend to be more motivated and less likely to make mistakes when we take vacation time. So while our work output might decrease while we’re gone, we come back to work raring to go, producing more, performing work more accurately, and feeling better about it.
Which brings me to the next benefit of taking PTO: your health. Studies show that taking extended breaks from work, whether you travel somewhere or simply stay home and relax, decreases stress. Constant high stress levels can lead to higher blood pressure, an increase in harmful stress hormones, weight gain, and depression, all of which also cost money to treat. Taking vacation also increases your energy, and can even lead to a healthier heart and longer life.
Although it’s inevitable that stress will return once you get back to “real life,” the health benefits of taking vacation are still considerable. Europeans seem to have this figured out, as vacation time is codified into law.
So, take your PTO if you have it. Do it for both your work performance as well as your sanity. And if you’re not going to, give me some of those 429 million unused days, people, and I’ll find something to do with them.