vacation unplug

I recently had the honor of discussing the topic of burnout on Amy Irvine’s Wine and Dime podcast. In our discussion, Amy shared that she had not taken a vacation in over two years. Amy is not alone – in fact, she is among the majority.

2018 study found that 55% of Americans reported not using all of their paid vacation time – a 9% increase over 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic served to exacerbate this trend. A 2020 survey found that 92% of workers shortened, postponed, or canceled their planned time off.

Time off gets even murkier when you dig further into the data. Seventy-one percent of Americans report that they check in with their workplace while they are on vacation, with 29% reporting that their company, or their supervisor, expects them to be “available” while on vacation.

Why does this matter?

recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that 745,000 people died in 2016 from heart disease and stroke due to long hours and said the trend might worsen due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The research found that working 55 hours or more a week was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease than a workweek of 35 to 40 hours. (A gentle reminder that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average workday in the United States has increased by 40% – roughly an extra three hours per day.)

What’s more, taking time off has a positive impact on productivity, performance, intrinsic motivation, and creativity. (A study of backpackers found that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multimedia and technology, increases performance on a creative problem-solving task by a full 50%.) And, research shows that those who take more than 10 days of vacation are 30% more likely to receive a raise, and those who take regular vacations have greater job satisfaction.

Back to my conversation with Amy. Amy shared with me that she recognized the need to not only take a vacation but also unplug. She outlined that she had been working with her team to put a strategy in place so that she would be able to fully disengage from work while on vacation – and leave her laptop behind.

Taking a vacation, disengaging, unplugging. Over the past couple of weeks, several leaders have shared with me that they have done all three of these. Their only regret – they didn’t do it sooner. Remember, elite athletes build in rest time, and research shows that this rest time is what enables them to perform at peak levels.

With more than half of US workers reporting that they take about the same amount of vacation time as their bosses do, it is clear that leaders need to model the behavior and take a vacation.

Leaders can also encourage vacation time by creating policies and building a culture that supports unplugging.

When Travis CI realized that employees were not taking vacation despite the company’s unlimited vacation time policy, they pivoted to a “minimum vacation” policy, with employees required to take a minimum of 25 paid days off per year.

FullContact has what it calls a “paid, paid vacation” policy that gives people a $7,500 stipend to go away. What’s more, employees are required to disconnect from work – no phone calls, no catching up on emails, or checking in on Slack channels.

Recently, companies including Bumble, LinkedIn, HootSuite, and SurveyMonkey have instituted “reset weeks,” where they give the entire company time off – at the same time. “The stress comes from always being connected–but when working from home, or vacationing, there’s always a feeling of, ‘What am I missing?,’” said Tariq Shaukat, the president of Bumble. “We wanted to help them actually unplug from the business. That only gets accomplished when everyone does it at the same time.”

Freek Vermeulen, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School, cautions: “If you can’t find time to think it probably means you haven’t organized your firm, unit, or team very well, and you are busy putting out little fires all the time. It also means that you are at risk of leading your company astray.” I’d argue the same is true for vacation, if you can’t find the time to take a vacation, you probably haven’t organized your firm, unit, or team very well.