Get the Flash Player to see this player.We know that we learn best from playing, and that serious games are highly effective learning tools. But no matter how engaging the training is, the training will not be as effective when the learners are exhausted. Today I want to share some thoughts on the bottom-line benefits of employee vacations. I just returned from a great vacation, feeling energized, sharp-minded, and at the top of my game, all my games – golf, tennis, and business!
Brains need a break for peak performance!
A 2011 CNN health report cited Adam Galinsky, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University’s finding that detaching from a familiar environment can help people get new perspectives on everyday life. That’s true for their work-life, too. The same report noted that Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University, described the benefits of vacationing as part of being mindful, a concept that involves being present and nonjudgmentally observant. Being mindful means noticing new things, Langer said. People’s automatic, mindless routines at work and home are broken only when they separate themselves from familiar surroundings – as on a vacation. Langer and other researchers have identified mindfulness’s benefits in health and wellbeing – and isn’t that the kind of employees we all want? Perceptive and healthy.
Also in 2011, the Los Angeles Times summarized several studies on stress in the workplace. The headline is: “Studies show that vacation time can go a long way in reducing stress and bringing our brains back to a more even keel.” We’ve probably all experienced the truth of that conclusion. The summary also noted that studies with rats have shown that stress can actually shrink parts of their brains, and a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that it probably shrinks ours, too.
A 2012 study reported in the Yale News reiterates that although “the effects of stress on brains of healthy individuals have been unclear … even the brains of subjects who had only recently experienced a stressful life event showed markedly lower gray matter in portions of the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that regulates not only emotions and self-control, but physiological functions such as blood pressure and glucose levels. Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry, and professor in the Department of Neurobiology and the Yale Child Study Center, concluded that “The brain is dynamic and plastic and things can improve — but only if stress is dealt with in a healthy manner.”
Putting two and two together, we can apply those findings to learning and productivity at work, and realize that when employees take vacations, everybody benefits … even the bottom line!
I investigated a bit further the relationship between vacations (with resulting lower-stressed brains) and employee productivity, and found some interesting statistics.
The Devil’s in the data.
How do US employees measure against those of other comparably developed nations in vacation days and productivity? First, I was disappointed to realize that US worker productivity had fallen by nearly one percentage point in the first quarter of 2012, but saw that we were about on par with or ahead of most other comparable nations. Then I noticed that three other countries with five or more weeks of vacation days mandated by federal statute had higher productivity than the US, and a fourth was only 0.3 lower than the US. I was surprised! Then I wondered why that might be.
|Developed Nation Employees||Vacation Days (Statutory)||GDP per hour worked, current prices (USD)|
(10 working days + 8 national holidays is standard for FTEs at employer’s discretion)
|60.9The US Dept. of Labor found that US worker productivity for 2011-2012 (output/work hour) fell by 0.9% - Details:
Hours worked ↑ 3.3%
Output ↑ 2.4%
So we’re working more hours but producing less per hour. Output, not productivity, is up. We’re working longer, but the opposite of smarter.
(28 days is standard)
|Germany||24 + 9-13 bank holidays||55.5|
|Sweden||25-32 (depending on age)||51.8|
|Luxembourg||25 + 14 bank holidays||77.1|
After all, even without federally required employee vacation days, US workers get an average of 18 vacation days. That’s less than Australian companies give their workers on average (also with no mandated days), and our GDP outperforms their by nearly 14 points. So why do workers in the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, and Ireland perform as well as US workers or outperform them? Can those additional vacation days have something to do with it, or are there more significant cultural issues?
The answer seems to be, yes, both.
The stress issue seems to reach far beyond brain shrinkage, to overall health. The American Psychosomatic Society, which studies the connection between stress and physical well-being, announced research results with strong implications for employee management. A detailed sixteen-year project tracking 12,338 men aged 35 to 57 found that, with other factors (diet, exercise, smoking) controlled, the men who took annual vacations where they actually relaxed were 21% less likely to get sick and die during the study period than those who took no real vacations. The regular-vacationers’ chances of dying of heart disease in particular were 32% lower than those of people not taking vacations. Other studies suggest that, for women, the difference is even more dramatic: Female managers who take two or more vacations per year cut their heart attack risk in half, compared to women who take no time off.
According to a recent study by Harris Interactive, reported by CNN-Money, 57% of Americans ended 2011 with unused vacation time, failing to take, on average, 11 of their allotted days off — or 70% of what they’d rightfully earned. Other national surveys have calculated that as many as 66 percent of us keep working when we could be kicking back somewhere, leaving unused a total of 459 million vacation days.
So why aren’t American workers taking the vacation days they’ve earned? The CNN-Money report stated that “as companies cut back on staff during the recession, they learned how to get by with a leaner workforce and rely more on technology. Since then, employees who saw their workloads build up over those years feel they can’t afford to take time off.” But, as the stressed-brain studies and declining US worker productivity suggest, we can’t afford for employees to not take time off!
What did you find useful in the posting? What more would you like to know? Please share your comments.