There’s never been a more critical time to address our national obsession with work – now, following one of the most stressful periods in recent history, is when we must establish new norms and reorient our approach to labor and leisure.
That’s why I’m telling you to take a vacation.
As a cognitive scientist, I’m well acquainted with the research that shows how prioritizing our jobs above all else damages our mental, physical, and emotional health.
Americans are notorious workaholics and it’s time to change that.
In 2020, the average workday increased by nearly an hour – with productivity, especially among remote workers, increasing, even as about 92% of us have shortened, postponed, or canceled our planned time off since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Years ago, things weren’t much better: More than half of us (55%) didn’t take full advantage of our paid vacation time in 2018, resulting in 768 million unused days, according to an online survey of 1,025 American workers.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that more hours spent working won’t necessarily net better results. Workplaces in Iceland, for example, recently tested a 35-hour workweek to “overwhelming success.” During the world’s largest-ever trial of a reduced-hour workweek in the public sector, researchers found that productivity remained unchanged or even increased in the majority of workplaces, while well-being and work-life balance improved. Even lawmakers here in the U.S. are starting to take notice: In late July 2021, a congressman from California introduced legislation that would reduce the standard working week from 40 hours to 32 hours for U.S. employees.
Given that most of us don’t see a reduced workweek in our futures anytime soon, why not focus on reasons why you should use your paid time off and book a vacation this summer? Here are three:
Better Mental and Physical Health
Many of us feel like we need to be “on” all the time, especially since the boundaries between home and work have virtually disappeared for most professionals in the work-from-home era. But answering emails from supervisors and colleagues deep into the night on workdays and around the clock on weekends has consequences. Psychologists have recently proposed that burnout at work is actually a form of job-related depression. It’s clear that, over time, the inability to rest and relax, to focus on other areas of one’s life, takes a toll on mental and physical health.
In 2020, for example, an Australian study that surveyed more than 2,200 higher education universities employees found that those with bosses who expected them to respond to after-hours work messages, compared to employees who didn’t have such expectations, reported higher levels of psychological distress (70.4% vs. 45.2%); emotional exhaustion (63.5% vs. 35.2%); and physical ailments, including headaches and back pain (22.1% vs. 11.5%).
Overwork can even be deadly: Logging 55 or more hours a week on the job is a “serious health hazard,” according to a new study by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization, which estimates that long working hours led to 745,000 deaths worldwide in 2016 – a 29% increase from 16 years earlier.
When you keep work from occupying all your time and, instead, take advantage of your well-deserved paid time off, you’ll be safeguarding your mental and physical health by boosting well-being, protecting against metabolic syndrome, and enhancing cardiovascular health, among many other benefits.
Extended work shifts and overtime can also damage our personal relationships since jobs that become all-consuming get in the way of spending quality time with family members, friends, and pets.
About 10% of those who work 50-60 hours per week and 30% of those who work more than 60 hours per week experience relationship problems, respectively, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A significant body of research shows that more time spent together in shared activities is linked to higher marital satisfaction.
If, however, this time is repeatedly interrupted by emails or text messages from bosses and coworkers, the quality of these moments diminish substantially.
Fully unplugging can be especially difficult for younger people. A recent study found that 25% of Millennials and Gen Xers check their work emails multiple times a day while on vacation.
To build and strengthen bonds, it’s critical to give your loved ones your full attention. Whether you’re spending time together on a planned vacation, a “staycation,” or just enjoying a three-day holiday weekend by playing a board game and ordering a pizza, make sure you prioritize your personal relationships. Ensuring that those who matter most to you feel valued – at least as much, if not more than your job – is essential for real connection.
A separate study found that women who take frequent vacations are less likely to say they feel tense, depressed, or tired, and are more satisfied with their marriages. Women have been impacted far worse during the pandemic, so now is a time when they should take a moment for themselves, enjoy life, and prepare for what could still be a tough road ahead as we look to return to a post-COVID world.
Increased Creativity and Better Problem Solving
You might think that the way to advance your career is to put in more hours, but that’s not true.
Being overworked contributes to burnout and makes it more difficult to engage in creative problem solving, which ultimately hurts productivity. The failure to take breaks can actually delay career advancement. Constantly working, in fact, has been shown to provide no net career benefits. Those who take fewer vacation days are actually less likely to receive pay raises or bonuses when compared to their colleagues who make time for rest.
Some workers struggle to wrap their heads around the “less is more” approach to their jobs, but upon further reflection, it becomes clear. Those who are pulled in countless directions at the office, overloaded with projects, and barely able to keep up with deadlines have little time to think strategically about their positions and ways to achieve improvements for the organization.
Workplaces want to elevate employees who are forward thinkers and strategic problem solvers with visionary ideas, not overtaxed employees who make sloppy mistakes because they’re sleep deprived and have lost all passion for the job.
To achieve optimal performance, we must give our minds regular breaks. Getting outside and spending time in nature – greening the brain – is one of the best ways to gain these restorative perks. Even a 5-10 minute walk in the park without your phone can provide the mental distance needed to relax and think more creatively once you’re back at your desk.
Much to our detriment, America’s obsession with work means our country provides no minimum annual leave or parental leave; our employees log more hours per year than workers in Japan, Canada, and the U.K.; and many of us feel guilty when we take even a brief respite from our jobs.
That approach isn’t getting workers anywhere. We need to recognize that we’re not machines – and being a workaholic isn’t laudable; it’s actually counterproductive.
Those who force themselves – or are forced by their jobs – to be “on” all the time will eventually burn out and underdeliver. Employees who unplug during non-work hours (nights, weekends, and while on vacation), however, will reap real benefits, returning to work renewed and refreshed.
So go ahead and book that vacation – your long-term health, happiness, and career may depend on it.