employee productivity depends on downtime

Taking time off isn’t just relaxing, it’s essential to employee productivity. (Photo via Dan Boot, Flickr)

Employee productivity depends on regular downtime as much as our daily functioning depends on nightly sleep. It seems counterintuitive at first — after all, more work is more work, right?
Not exactly. Research is now confirming what we’ve instinctively known all along, that our minds and bodies suffer when we push ourselves to work longer hours, skip vacation, and check email one last time before bed.

In the early 1980s, about 2 to 4 percent of Americans suffered anxiety disorder. Now almost 50 percent do, according to recent studies discussed in Timi Gustafson’s Huffington Post Healthy Living column, “Taking Time Off Can Improve Health and Productivity.” We’re working more, taking less vacation and paying the price with our health.
Resisting time off not only hurts our health, productivity and retention, it also has a surprisingly harmful effect on the economy at large.
Yet U.S. workers continue to skip vacation days. More than 40 percent of workers who received paid time off did not take all of their allotted time in 2013, according to a study by Oxford Economics commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association. American workers last year chose not to use 429 million days of paid time off, or 3.2 days per worker.
In a Forbes report on the study, Tanya Mohn summarized a key finding: If American workers used all of their paid days off, the economy “would benefit from more than $160 billion in total business sales and $21 billion in tax revenues, spending that would support 1.2 million jobs in industries ranging from retail to manufacturing to transportation.”
Interestingly, the study revealed a gap between what managers believe and employees perceive. “Most managers recognize the benefits of taking leave, namely higher productivity, stronger workplace morale and greater employee retention, as well as significant health benefits,” the report stated.
But that’s not what employees perceived, the study found.

Nearly 34 percent of employees indicated that their employer neither encourages nor discourages leave, and 17 percent of managers consider employees who take all of their leave to be less dedicated. Four in ten American workers said their employer supported time off, but their heavy workload kept them from using their earned days.

It’s easy to see how this communication breakdown could occur. Business leaders typically feel an intense responsibility to take care of others and make sure everything goes to plan. But it’s just as important for them to disconnect and take time off, too — and to model this attitude to their employees.
Life coach and former attorney Tejal Patel says on her weekly vlog that she recently struggled a bit to trust that her business would run smoothly when she went on vacation: “It was surprisingly quite difficult for me to disconnect … I felt, wow, if I’m gone, what are my employees going to do? Are they going to be OK? I really needed to get in a place of relaxing, (of) trusting my employees.”

employee productivity needs downtime - beach scene

Go ahead, relax a little. Taking time off is restorative. (Photo via Micky Zlimen, Flickr)

Patel recommends making “time off” a daily routine, setting aside time when you don’t take calls or respond to texts or emails. It’s important, she says, to keep this time sacred and let family, friends and coworkers know ahead of time that you won’t be available.
Here are some other tips on maximizing the full benefits of time off, for yourself and for overall employee productivity:
1. Roll with the seasons. Jason Fried, founder and CEO of 37signals, recommends a lightened workload in the summer months. Particularly in the Midwest and in other areas of the country with strong seasonal changes, he says it doesn’t make sense to ask employees to work the same hours month in and month out. Bonus: the limited hours his employees do work in the summer become ultra-focused and productive, he says.
2. Plan ahead. Totally disconnecting from work takes advance planning, says Washington Post blogger Tom Fox. “If you had a major task or event coming up at work, I suspect you would develop a plan, define clear roles and responsibilities, establish milestones, block out time and then hold a debriefing after all is said and done,” he says. The same is true of vacation.
3. Focus on family and friends. If the lure of work is overpowering, distract yourself by committing to quality time with the people who matter most to you. “Make sure your loved ones become the center of your vacation experience,” advises Alex Antonatos in a LinkedIn blog post.
4. Make time off a habit. As Patel points out, it’s important to make time off part of your daily or weekly routine. Disconnecting on vacation will seem a lot more natural if you’re used to it. That’s why Minda Zetlin, co-author of The Geek Gap, recommends “short play breaks,” more frequent vacations and even midday naps.
5. Forgive yourself if you “slip.” You’re not blowing an entire vacation if you spend 15 minutes checking email in the morning, so be forgiving of yourself and do what you need to do, says Deseret New’s Greg Kratz. Still, he adds, it’s important to set a strict time limit for yourself so you don’t get too carried away.
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