Why Breaks and Vacations are More Important Than You Think

We Need More Time Off.

This isn’t (just) my personal opinion, it’s science.

Vacation sloth in a tree

Did you think I would write an entire blog simply to justify that vacation request? Moi? Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Like multitasking, the idea that your best workers are in the office 70+ hours a week, indulging in neither breaks nor vacations, came into vogue during the 1980s. Do adherents to the workaholic paradigm get promoted? Usually. Divorced? More than average. Are they more productive?

No. With a few exceptions, they are not.

Study after study shows the same thing. People who work extended hours without breaks or overtime are sicker, moodier, less creative and, yes, less productive, than their “harder working” peers. Employees who are expected to be on call during off hours suffer similar, if not quite as severe, problems.


vacation vintage typewriter

Jack was right—overwork dulls your creative edge. More to the point, associated stress cost his employers thousands in door repair and maze cleanup alone. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and China Crisis.

This is a problem. If you’re in management, you may be causing it. If you’re skipping breaks and vacations due to perceived (rather than direct) pressure, you’re enabling a culture of unproductive overwork.

Want to get back on track? Stretch, go make a cup of tea, chat with a coworker about the new X-Files for a few minutes (six to twenty is optimum), then read this blog.

vacation cup of coffee

Seriously though, they need to extend X-Files into a regular series for ten more seasons. Right? Image courtesy of Creative Commons and TOrange.
We Weren’t Designed to Sit Still

A few generations ago, almost all of us were active: hunting, gathering, farming, fishing, or at the very least fox hunting on weekends. Now, most of us are stuck in front of a computer eight or more hours per day. The stress this puts on your body is phenomenal.

So take a break! No, I don’t mean surfing Facebook—although studies show that employees who can check social media regularly are 10% more efficient, and much happier, than those who can’t. Hey, socializing is important, and technology helps fill one of the many voids it created.

But, while Facebook may satisfy our need for friendship, it does nothing for your under-taxed muscles and hardening arteries. So get up, stretch, and walk around, for a bare minimum of six minutes out of every 80.

Scores of studies have tried to pinpoint the optimum ration of work to breaks. You could try the Pomodoro Cycle (taking a 5-minute break after every 25 minutes of focused work), the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (20-minute breaks after 90 minutes of work) or the DeskTime Cycle (17-minute breaks after 52 minutes of work). Choose the one that works for you.

Because not one experiment has ever concluded that you get more work done by going without breaks. Not one. In fact, study after study shows that regular breaks sharpen the mind, elevate mood, and increase productivity.

Your Mind, Like Your Muscles, Needs Time to Recover

If you’ve ever exercised competitively, you know that days off and “cheat days” improve your results. That’s because your body needs time to repair, recuperate, and realign.  “Muscles don’t grow in the gym,” your bodybuilding nephew will explain between protein drinks. “They grow afterward.”

Image of Mr. Universe competition

We wouldn’t look like this if we worked out 70+ hours per week, with no breaks or vacations. We’d look like those sick, scrawny POWs who built the bridge over the River Kwai. The real ones, not the actors. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Your brain, part of the same biological system as your pecs and glutes, also functions better with regular breaks and occasional vacations. Without rest, it survives on sugary Monster Energy drinks and stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol eventually damages your hippocampus, addles your memory, adds weight around your middle, and eventually turns you into a cranky, absent-minded, sleep-deprived jerk.

Who wants to work with that person? No one.

So, think like a bodybuilder. If you want to build and improve your mind for the long term, rather than just use and abuse it until the poor thing gives out, take breaks, days off, and vacations.

Ah-Hah Moments Don’t Come Out of Nowhere

Those flashes of insight upon which the world turns—steam engines, iPads, sliced bread—weren’t originally the result of relentless, disciplined work. They appeared in a dream, during a long walk, or in a reverie when one well-rested mind was elsewhere, subconsciously tackling the problem.

“The frontal lobe brain networks work for you in creative ways when the brain is quiet, not while you are effortfully trying to find a solution to a problem,” explains Psychology Today. “ When not actively tackling a task, the brain connects random ideas and consolidates these with prior knowledge into exciting new thoughts, ideas, directions, and potential solutions.”

This is also called “diffuse mode” or “daydream mode,” and it is the seat of creative solutions. Your brain turns it off when it needs to focus on a specific task at hand, which is usually a good thing. But, while you’re accomplishing set tasks efficiently, you’re not problem solving.

Do you have a sticky problem that discipline and hard work won’t solve? Take a break.

Lady golfer on vacation

Our team is working on it right now, sir.
Image courtesy of Creative Commons.
Most People Do Less in 70 Hours than 40

Sure, everyone’s impressed that you work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week. Especially since you never stop talking about it on those rare occasions when you bother attending a family gathering or party.

Yes, of course, a very small percentage of people do thrive on that much work—looking at you, Elon Musk. But the fact is, when you measure actual output, the vast majority of us are faster, more creative, make fewer mistakes, and are more productive overall when we’re working 40 hours per week. Or less.

Chances are, you’re in the group that would accomplish more if you spent less time at the office. We’ve read the research.

Besides, almost all of us are expected to answer emails around the clock anyway. What’s the difference whether we do it at home or overlooking the Caribbean?

Which brings us to vacations.

Breaks Are No Substitute for Vacations

Over half of USAmericans don’t take the vacation days they earn, despite getting about half the time as workers in other developed nations. Why? Because we’re afraid. We (quite rightly) fear losing the respect of our coworkers, lucrative promotions, or even our jobs. And that fear of illegal but acceptable recrimination is spreading to workers other countries.

Corporate cultures that quietly dissuade employees from taking their vacation time probably think they’re getting a great deal. More hours working means more work done, right?


First off, you’re making your employees sick—less able to resist infections, more prone to accidents and cardiovascular disease, and suffering poor digestion and sleep quality. They’re also going to be more irritable, depressed, anxious, and lonely, which interferes with their ability to make decisions, think creatively, or work as a team.

Fewer vacations are also strongly correlated with lower rates of employee retention and higher rates of divorce. Does this still sound like a recipe for corporate success?

Vacation Playa Samara

Vacation days or sick days—your choice, boss.
Photo by Paige R. Penland.

We’ll wait here while you do the math.

But I Can’t Force Them to Take Vacations!

No, but HR can remove the stigma attached to them. Let employees know that official company policy considers regular breaks and vacations good for workers, and therefore good for the company. Tell your employees that you want them to take more time off.

Sure, continue to buy back vacation time at the full rate—don’t penalize people with a deep-seated fear of beaches and mountains. There really are statistical outliers who thrive on 70+ hours of desk time per week.

But make it clear that the company would strongly prefer that the other 96% of you use all of their vacation days. Clearly state that management will not penalize workers in any way for taking me-time.

Your employees are nervous about being perceived as lazy, and they are willing to suffer—and let their work suffer, and your company suffer—to avoid getting a bad reputation. You need to fight that tendency at the corporate level.

If you’re an employee who is being pressured not to take breaks or vacations, we understand that you’re in a tight spot. I was once told, point blank, that if I took a two-week vacation—using days I had earned—that I would lose a promotion. I took the vacation, lost the promotion, and subsequently cast my lot with those “lower rates of employee retention.”

I was also 27, with no debt and no kids. Foregoing a promotion or losing a job is obviously not a risk that everyone can take. But you do have the Internet on your side. You can prove to your superiors, using literally hundreds of studies that vacations and breaks improve productivity, creativity, and quality.

That, hopefully, is a risk that everyone will be willing to take.

2016-10-21T11:03:08-05:00 By |Categories: Career, Psychology, Travel|Tags: , , |