Are We More Productive When We Have More Time Off?

By Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman

We were recently working with a company in Amsterdam, and having difficulty getting a summer meeting scheduled because of the number of executives who were on vacation. Experiencing some frustration, we began to wonder how this company actually got its work done. But their VP of HR assured us, “I am confident that because of the rest and break from work that our European executives get more accomplished in their working days than those in the U.S. who burn themselves out.”

This seemed worthy of some research. Because European executives get significantly more vacation time than their U.S. counterparts, we theorized that studying the two groups would essentially give us a control group and a test group. (Of course, this is not perfect as there are other cultural differences between countries, but for our purposes it seemed like a reasonable proxy.)

In a dataset of 2,310 respondents, we looked at data from the 20 countries with the most paid vacation days (247 respondents) and compared them to respondents in the United States (1,151). The 20 countries with the most vacation ranged from Australia, with 28 days allotted, to Sweden and Brazil, with 41 days. By contrast, the United States has no law requiring paid time off, and the average full-time worker with a year of service gets 10 paid vacation days (and only 25% of Americans take their full allotment, according to another survey).

To gauge how different amounts of vacation might affect attitudes toward productivity, we asked respondents to complete an assessment that measured their preference for working at a slow or fast pace. Granted, our sampling for this research was not large. But when we tested the differences between these groups for speed, quantity focus, and impatience we came upon some intriguing results: first, we found that leaders in countries with more paid vacation days actually tend to seem slightly more likely to work at a faster pace, have a higher quantity focus, and feel more impatient.vacastress_intro

We also asked respondents how much they agreed with the statement, “If I were able to move faster, I could become much more effective.” Respondents from countries with more paid vacation days responded more positively to this thought.

Taken together, these results should reassure managers who worry about the possible deleterious effects of longer vacations. In fact, having more vacation time seems to help employees better understand the importance of being impatient for results and getting as much done as possible.

So is our Dutch HR manager right? Is it the “rest and break from work” that causes longer-vacation takers to be more focused getting a lot done, quickly?

While our investigation is not conclusive, signs point to “no.”

We also asked employees if they generally felt “overwhelmed with too much to do” or whether they “had things under control.” Twenty-six percent of those with the most vacation felt overwhelmed, compared with 23% of Americans. This is not a statistically significant difference, but this response does suggest to us that for a few longer vacation-takers, the work may simply pile up on vacation, requiring significant prep before the departure and additional effort to catch up upon return.

It appears from this data that employees in countries that take more vacation do have a strong desire to get a lot done as well as a tendency to move faster. So while our particular study did not find that having more vacation reduced stress, we do see evidence that it results in greater productivity at work all the same. In other words, it’s not that taking a break will refresh your brain and let you get more done; it’s that simply spending less time at your desk forces you to waste less time.

Perhaps instead of telling your head of HR that you need more vacation time for your mental well-being, you can simply tell him or her that having more vacation time will force you to be more efficient.

Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a co-author of the October 2011 HBR article Making Yourself Indispensable.Connect with Jack at twitter.com/jhzenger.

Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a co-author of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable. Connect with Joe at twitter.com/joefolkman.

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