Over the past three years, we have partnered with the U.S. Travel Association to more clearly understand the relationship between well-being and taking time off from work. Our hypothesis has been that without recovery periods, our ability to continue performing at high levels diminishes significantly. This is in direct conflict with the common misconception that the longer you persevere at work, the more successful you will become.
Our previous HBR articles outlined our research into what kind of vacations create a positive effect, debunking the idea that people who don’t take their vacation time get ahead. But a new research study, released this month by the U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off, presents a high-definition picture of how overwork affects our success rates and well-being.
In the study, 5,641 adult Americans who work more than 35 hours a week and receive paid time off from their employers were asked a series of questions designed to understand their perception of time off and the impacts on various business or health measures. Oxford Economics then used the results, combined with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Current Population Survey, to estimate levels of historical vacation activity. (A 24-month moving average was used to eliminate short-term fluctuations in the data.) The finding was that Americans used to take almost three weeks of vacation a year (20.3 days) in 2000, but they took only 16.2 days of vacation in 2015. Over the past 15 years, Americans have lost nearly a week of vacation. How low will that number go?
The question that needs to be asked is whether we are more productive and successful with fewer days, or whether work is getting in the way of our success. Statistically, taking more vacation results in greater success at work as well as lower stress and more happiness at work and home.
So why aren’t we using more vacation time? At first glance, one might think that a scarcity of jobs or lack of job security might be leading people to believe they always need to be at work. But the data does not support that.
During 1982 and 2010, the two years since 1981 with the highest unemployment, people still used an average of 20.9 days of vacation. In 2015 the unemployment rate was 5.3% (it was 9.7% in 1982), and yet 2015 had one of the lowest averages of time off taken in the past 30 years: 16.2 days. There may be lots of reasons for this, but clearly unemployment rate does not directly correlate with time taken off.
As we consider what was happening during 2000–2015, we can’t help but think of the cornucopia of time-saving technologies that were created during the information and cell phone revolutions. But rather than technology helping people work less, allowing for more downtime and time off, nearly half of office-based workers say technology has actually increased the amount of time they spend working, according to the Pew Research Center.
At a recent conference we attended, a major social media app’s spokesman proudly asked the audience of technophiles, “Do you remember the last time you were bored with nothing to do? You’re welcome.