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The limits of vacation


By Jenny Gross


Companies that want to retain talent are looking for ways to reduce burnout, which can lead to reduced productivity and higher turnover. One strategy they’ve embraced is encouraging — or in some cases, forcing — employees to take vacation.


In the past year, firms including the networking company LinkedIn, the dating app company Bumble, and the financial software provider Intuit have introduced weeklong companywide shutdowns so employees can fully disconnect. PwC, the professional services giant, has gone even further: On top of two global weeks off, the company is offering workers $250 each time they take 40 consecutive hours off.


More than half of workers do not use all their paid time off, according to a survey by the pollster Ipsos and Oxford Economics. That’s in part because employees are either worried that time off will hurt their chances for promotions or recognition, researchers say. Initiatives that encourage time off are meant to relieve some of that pressure.


Michael Fenlon, the chief human resources officer at PwC, said the company’s policy took effect in April, after it had become apparent that employees felt strained and exhausted. Providing cash incentives to people who took time off showed how serious the firm was about vacation, which is crucial for quality performance, he said.


“We want everyone in the firm to take advantage of this benefit,” he said. “And then when they’re taking time off, to also disconnect, to resist the urge to check emails.” The policy seems to be working, with vacation utilization significantly up this year compared with last year, he said.


Sheldon Cummings, the head of human resources for Intuit, said the software company’s weeklong shutdown allowed employees to take an uninterrupted break, since everyone was off at the same time. “Even when on vacation, email and Slack messages still may come through.”


But does more vacation time really avert burnout?


Vacation helps, but it’s not a long-term solution


The World Health Organization recognized burnout in 2019 as a workplace condition, defining it as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Symptoms include exhaustion, increased mental distance from work and reduced professional efficacy.


It can have devastating mental health effects. But avoiding burnout is not a priority for all companies. About 20% of U.S. workers in the private sector do not have access to paid vacation or holidays, according to the Labor Department. Companies in industries where retaining talent is difficult, such as technology, tend to see giving employees time to recharge as a worthwhile investment. ​​Other companies consider turnover part of their business model because their data show that employees become less engaged over time.


Extra time off, though, is only a short-term coping strategy, says Christina Maslach, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s Healthy Workplaces center.


“It’s not preventing burnout and chronic stressors because those are still there in the workplace,” she said. “If those don’t change, you’re getting away from them, but then they’ll start back again.”


This is backed by research. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health found that vacation led to modest decreases in exhaustion and health complaints and modest increases in life satisfaction. Within two to four weeks after resuming work, however, those benefits had vanished, according to Jessica de Bloom, a vacation researcher at the University of Tampere in Finland who was a co-author of the study. Other studies have shown that well-being lapsed to pre-vacation levels within the first week of resuming work.


This was especially true for a category of people prone to burnout: workaholics and perfectionists. A 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology and a 2014 study by de Bloom and others in the journal Stress and Health found that workaholics and perfectionists gained more in terms of well-being than other workers, but they also lost more upon returning.


How companies can reduce burnout


When corporations have a problem, such as high attrition, and they don’t know how to solve it, they tend to copy what competitors are doing, said Dan Wang, a professor at Columbia Business School. He believes that’s part of the reason several companies are bulking up their vacation benefits this year. But given the relative lack of data on whether vacations are the best way to improve employee well-being at work, is it the best approach?


Leaders’ first priority should be to stop glorifying exhaustion, said Maslach of Berkeley. After that, she suggests that managers ask employees what they need, rather than assume that they know, since there is no one answer. For example, companies have sought to improve morale by installing a volleyball court on the rooftop of an office or by providing free food during the day. What may have made more of a difference to employees was receiving fewer emails from bosses during evenings and weekends.


Long hours are not the only cause of burnout. Studies have shown that factors including fairness, such as when recognition goes to an undeserving person, can also contribute to it, Maslach said. Discrimination can be a factor, such as when promotions do not go to the most qualified employees. She added that employers should ask themselves: What does it say about work that the best thing employers can do is give employees time away from it? Companies need to view burnout not as a condition that affects individual workers, but as a condition caused by the environment at the company, she said.


How to make the most of a vacation


While burnout may be best reduced by changes to the workplace, in many cases the task will fall on individual employees. If you have vacation time to take, here’s how to make it as restorative as possible.


Work in some low-effort activities. They are linked with lower burnout after the vacation ends, said Charlotte Fritz, an associate professor in industrial and organizational psychology at Portland State University. “In addition, activities that include mastery, learning and broadening one’s horizons are beneficial as well.”


Compromise, but not too much. It can be one of the most stressful parts of vacationing. But according to Jeroen Nawijn, a tourism researcher at the Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, research shows it’s worth it. “It is important to allow each person a large degree of autonomy in choosing vacation activities,” he said. “Yet, social bonding is a key ingredient to holiday happiness, so I would say that to get the balance right is the main challenge for us all.”


Set an out-of-office message, and don’t read work emails. You could try an out-of-office message like this one from de Bloom, the vacation researcher: “I am currently on vacation. Research shows that working during vacations can be detrimental for my health and well-being (De Bloom, Geurts & Kompier, 2012). Therefore, I will check my emails very rarely and mentally detach from my work (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2014).”


Ease back into work after vacation. High levels of work immediately after a vacation can cause positive vacation effects to disappear faster than more moderate levels of work, Fritz said.

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