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Gimme A Break!

Editor's Note: "Vacation. All I ever wanted. Vacation. Had to get away." - The Go-Go's

Plenty has been written about how Americans take relatively few vacations. Not much has been written about how science proves that this is bad strategy, not just for our personal and professional well-being, but even for the cold, bottom-line corporate interests. Even if you're a cartoon-character-selfish-unreasonable-(expletive deleted) manager who requires total commitment, there are good business reasons to lighten up and give your team some breaks.

We'll leave it to you to decide whether or not to share this article with your boss.

The New York Yankees were in Houston recently, taking on last year’s World Series champs. It was their first meeting since the Astros eliminated the Yankees in a dramatic seven-game playoff series last fall, so there was a lot of media buildup and fan attention. But when that day’s lineup card came out, reporters were stunned: Rising star Aaron Judge wasn’t in the lineup. 

Was he hurt? Were there some other issues? (Editor’s note: Did he just really hate being a Yankee, because they’re so evil? Go Red Sox!)

Nope. His boss just gave him a day off.

Judge is only 26, and the season was not even a month old, but the Yankees are committed to giving players rest so they stay fresh throughout the season.   Workers and bosses take note: The Yankees are on to something. (Editor’s note: Ugh. I feel so dirty.)

Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer, which makes it the unofficial beginning of summer vacation season. If you're like most Americans, you are terrible at taking vacations. More than half of American workers – 52%– ended 2017 with unused vacation days, according to Project Time Off.  

That's bad for you and your employer.

If you're like most Americans, you are terrible at taking vacations.

A mountain of research published in recent years has shown that people need real breaks – be they minutes, days or weeks long – to reach their full creative potential. Meanwhile, so-called work martyrs who spend nights and weekends catching up on email can actually do more harm than good, as fatigue means productivity plummets while health risks rise.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone wasn’t just being nice when he gave Judge an off-day; he was managing a critical company asset.

"I am just trying to pick a day here and there with some of our guys," Boone said. If losing a game in April means a better chance to win in October, so be it. Other Yankees stars, and in fact stars all around baseball, are getting the sports equivalent of personal days. This is new; not long ago, baseball idolized Baltimore's Cal Ripkin, who famously played in 2,632 consecutive games. Today, young players like Judge are getting days off if they play 30 or 40 games in a row. In 2015, only a single player took the field in all 162 games – the Orioles’ Manny Machado.

Fans have probably noticed the league itself has recognized the need for rest, and stretched this year's season calendar from 183 to 187 days, so teams can have four more off-days spread throughout the season. Other pro sports are doing this, too. San Antonio basketball coach Greg Popovich famously started a trend of “not dressing” his star players for several games during the regular season, annoying fans but keeping his squad fresh for more-important playoff games. The Spurs won 5 NBA titles in 15 years.

“Staying fresh” isn’t some kind of feel-good concept invented to pamper spoiled athletes; it works.  People who aspire to big goals like working out or eating healthy are far more likely to make progress if they begin their quest after a break. Researchers from Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania found people are more likely to exercise – specifically, go to the gym – at the beginning of the week (by 33.4%), the month (by 14.4%), the year (by 11.6%), and following school breaks (by 24.3%) or at the start of the semester (by 47.1%). They dubbed this the “Fresh-Start Effect.” 

Plenty of other research supports the notion that rest is, paradoxically, productive. The breaks can be small, but they have to be real: A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that study subjects who take a walk or do mindful relaxation during lunch – as opposed to, say, eating at their desks – enjoyed better concentration throughout the afternoon and less end-of-day stress and fatigue. Walks in parks were particularly, helpful, the study found, as re-connecting with nature led to “attention restoration.”

Research supports the notion that rest is, paradoxically, productive.

Meanwhile, working too much in any week doesn’t really work. A study by John Pencavel of Stanford University found that productivity falls sharply after about 50 hours worked in a 7-day week. It falls off a cliff after 55 hours. U.S. workers seem to be ignoring this “productivity cliff.” A Gallup poll in 2014 found that the average American workweek was 47 hours, and four in 10 Americans said they worked more than 50 hours per week.

Some benefits of longer breaks – real vacations – are obvious: Workers who skimp on vacations are much more likely to get sick, and they’re at higher risk of serious health issues like heart disease. Other impacts are more subtle. Shashank Nigam, head of aviation firm SimpliFlying, created a mandatory vacation policy at his firm. Workers had to take one week off every seven weeks; and if they answered email or checked in on Slack, they were docked pay. The result: “Creativity went up 33%, happiness levels rose 25%, and productivity increased 13%,” he wrote in Harvard Business Review.

Workers had to take one week off every seven weeks and if they answered email or checked in on Slack, they were docked pay. 

Why would someone like Nigam have to go so far as force workers to take vacations?  American culture rewards work-a-holism and exhaustion. You can hear it in the humblebragging that millennials share about long hours, late-night work and their lack of a social life.  In its most extreme form, so-called “binge working” has led to high-profile deaths, such as Miwa Sado who Tweeted about a 30-hour overtime binge before she died tragically in her Tokyo office.

Technology is partly to blame. The long-term trend to skimp on vacations is clear: Back in 1996, Americans took an average of 21 days off. By 2016, that had shrunk to 16 days by 1996, according to Project: Time Off. Yes, that basically coincides with the rise of email. 

The Great Recession didn’t help, either. A tight labor market made many workers feel they couldn’t leave their desks lest someone take their place. But that turns out to be at least partly a myth. Project: Time Off found in 2016 that workers who took 11 or more vacation days were more likely to have received a raise or a bonus in the previous three years than workers who took 10 or fewer days. And internal research by audit firm EY found that employees who use more vacation days end up with better performance reviews. For each 10 vacation hours a worker took, performance reviews were 8 percent higher, the firm says. 

So as Memorial Day arrives, and you find yourself daydreaming about sunny beaches or summer road trips, do more than dream: Plan. Bench yourself for a day, or better yet, a week or two. Nothing you’ll miss – not even a game against the World Series champs – is more important than your long-term well-being. If it’s good enough for major league baseball players and teams, it’s good enough for you and your company.


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