When Vacation Isn’t Enough


For the longest time, organizations have encouraged employees to use their vacation time, knowing it enables rejuvenation, recovery, and reinvigoration. And yet, a startling one-third of those days go unused. Much of that, experts say, is because of increased workload. Today, the amount of vacation time taken by the typical U.S. employee averages 14 days, while Europe averages 24 days.

Which of course is ironic, considering  the concept behind paid-time off (PTO)  started in the U.S. more than 100 years ago by President William Taft in hopes of improving the effectiveness and energy of employees. European counterparts quickly saw the value of this strategy and surpassed the U.S. in the implementation and duration of vacation days. So how did we go from being innovators of vacation time to laggards in usage? Several factors contribute to this, including increased workloads and PTO policies that lack organizational support.

The result is that even when we do take vacations, they seem to fall short of creating the full recovery needed. That’s because many of us are notorious for checking emails or hopping on a video call from our vacation villas. We think the office can’t succeed without us, or that our workload is so significant that we must bring some of it with us to the beach. Then when vacation ends, we immediately return to the same fray that drained our cognitive and physical capacity in the first place – but without the rest and regeneration we desperately needed.

This inability to fully recover dramatically affects our well-being, inevitably leading to reduced employee engagement and suboptimal workplace performance. Years of this pattern have contributed to the growing challenge of employee burnout, with people walking away from their employers at an average rate of 4 million employees each month.


Rest and relaxation for our brain cells

To understand why we aren’t able to rest properly, it’s important to understand how our neurons react to overload . Neurons are the brain brain cells responsible for processing sensory input and activating commands to various components of our bodies. They’re also responsible for sending vital information rapidly. To work quickly and efficiently, the neuron is always striving for what scientists call its “resting potential.”

The resting potential is a state in which the neuron is electrically stable and ready to respond best to new incoming work. When a neuron has lost a lot of its capacity due to the workload, it has a fail-safe component that shuts it down until it recharges. This reduces the risk of suboptimal performance and failure. But when we deal with continuous stressors every day and don’t allow ourselves to reach a resting potential, our brains experience a reduction in cognitive capacity. This puts us at risk for suboptimal performance. As the cell returns to capacity, this is called a “steady state.” The steady state may be slightly different for each cell, yet every neuron must seek this state continuously and cannot wait until a designated vacation time to get there.

Knowing this, we must recognize that our bodies and minds require more frequent opportunities to recover because our cognitive capacity is drained from various elements in our lives and not just in the workplace. Moreover, to get the recovery needed to reach the ideal steady state, each person needs to have  the autonomy to choose on a weekly or daily basis how and when to  recover from challenges that arise. Research shows there’s a decrease in cognitive performance the longer we maintain high workload activity. Organizations that provide flexibility for employees reap significant benefits in innovation, well-being, and performance. Here’s how to encourage a more frequent, steady state:

  • Implement flexible work. To give employees more time to do their best work, almost half of the companies surveyed in an MIT Sloan article instituted two days per week of no In total, companies reduced meetings by 40% and saw productivity improve by 75%, and engagement and communication increased by 32% and 57%, respectively. Other intriguing ideas have focused on a more flexible work week, and many companies have seen an impact on employee productivity with that strategy as well. One secret to their success is that these strategies have been designed for the specific needs of each organization.
  • Model a steady state. We heard an executive at a large aerospace company say, “I really don’t want to hear from folks that our leaders are sending emails and action items over the weekend.” This executive highlighted that leaders must model appropriate “downtime” for their organizations. Social norms are powerful, and modeling what true rest looks like can help others feel better about doing the same.
  • Make it personal. Because every neuron reaches a steady state in its own way, both employees and their leaders are responsible for agreeing on the need for daily or weekly recovery practices. The more we can individually identify which healthy practices are best for recharging and rejuvenating our brains and bodies, the better our entire organization will be. Organizations need to be deliberate in articulating and supporting individual needs for recovery and regeneration.

While organizations aren’t wrong to encourage employees to make sure they use their vacation days, they also need to recognize that people need a process and a plan to regularly reach their own “resting potential.” Leaders can do that by remembering that each employee faces different personal and professional challenges, and at the same time,  individuals need to be clear on what they need in order to produce their best results. After all, since we’re wired to achieve a resting potential at a cellular level and it works for billions of neurons, imagine what it could do for the rest of us  — and our organizations.

Authors: John F. Edwards , Emma Sarro, Ph.D

Want to know more?