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Almost everybody wants to take a vacation at some point during the year, but a recent poll suggests that vacation time might not be taken as often as it once was for U.S. workers. This should come as no surprise, given that the average number of vacation days employees take per year has declined from 20.3 in 2000 to 16.2 in 2015. While a myriad of reasons may be to blame, two likely causes would seem to be technology and overwork.

Technology

Technology, especially the reliance on electronic forms of communication and document sharing, has steadily increased over the past 15 years. Although there are a variety of benefits, the reliance on electronic communication has also resulted in about 44 percent of people reporting they check work messages at least once per day when on vacation, with a small minority of workers (11 percent) reporting they check work messages hourly when on vacation.

There is also no doubt that technological advances have made U.S. workers more productive, allowing fewer workers to perform more activities today than would have been possible 30 or 40 years ago. However, increased efficiency from technological advances is not without its downsides. Often, this increased efficiency means there are fewer people to whom work can shift when someone goes on vacation. Add to that the emphasis on increased efficiency and doing more with less that occurs during a recession, and many organizations have been left without the slack resources that would permit workers the flexibility they need to effectively take vacation.

Overwork

The “do more with less” attitude has permeated the workplace. APA’s Stress in America survey highlights the impact of work on people’s stress levels. Two-thirds of U.S. workers reported that stress is a somewhat or significant source of stress, second only to money. Furthermore, the latest results from the Work and Well-Being Survey indicated that a burdensome workload and long work hours were cited as two of the top five sources of work stress.

Previous research has shown that the psychological detachment that corresponds with various types of breaks from work (with vacations being one type of break) offer significant benefits for stress, health and well-being. However, these benefits are often short-lived. If workers are on vacation but still investing their resources into work activities, one would have to wonder whether such a break would possess the requisite psychological detachment to be of benefit.

We Need More Than Encouragement to Get the Most Out of Vacation

With all of these factors working against employees being able to effectively take vacations (and benefit from them), it is not sufficient for managers to simply encourage employees to take some time off. The issue is much broader than that; the system has to be designed to allow employees to regularly detach from their work.

Yet, in the era of doing more with less, most systems are not designed to provide the appropriate detachment necessary to support ongoing health and well-being. While manager support and encouragement is important, the following should also be addressed:

  • Provide deliberate attention to the issue of temporary responsibility shifts. This may include using technology to aid workers in coordinating vacations across the unit, so that work unit staffing can be appropriately managed.
  • Provide cross-training so workers can actually shift their work. When only one employee is capable of performing a given task in the unit, and said task if required on a regular basis, that employee can seldom ever fully detach from work. But when multiple employees are capable of performing that task, it becomes easier to manage around one worker’s absence. Cross-training can be an effective way to develop important competencies in multiple employees, which can be a benefit when employees take vacation (not to mention offering a myriad of other benefits).
  • Ensure vacations avoid peak periods. Avoid scheduled absences that would put undue pressure on other employees. Many employers have blackout periods and require sufficient notice before an employee is permitted to take a vacation. This allows them to ensure that those employees who will be in the office are not unduly burdened while the vacationing employee is absent. However, many organizations lack such structure, and the vacation process can result in significant increased stress for employees still in the office.
  • Employees should plan appropriately to ensure a relaxing vacation. Employees should prepare to shift their responsibilities when they leave. Appropriate planning needs to occur so those who will be overseeing job responsibilities while a given employee is on vacation have the needed information to do so.
  • Make time off a regular occurrence, not a once-a-year perk. Because the benefits of vacation are short-lived, time off from work should be encouraged regularly. It does not have to be weeklong vacations, but taking one or two days off on a regular basis can be beneficial for worker health and well-being. Furthermore, if organizations were to proactively build such an emphasis into their cultures, they could create systems and processes that are easier to manage than when employees scramble to cram their vacations into a shorter period of time.

If organizations and employees would begin thinking more strategically and systemically about vacations and other forms of time off, worker well-being and organizational productivity would both benefit. Such win-win scenarios are the hallmark of a psychologically healthy workplace, and the opportunity to detach and recharge is a necessary component of such a workplace.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Editor's note: This is the first post in an ongoing series that shares some of the initiatives, events and activities that support employee health and well-being at the American Psychological Association. We don't only talk about how businesses and organizations can be psychologically healthy. It's a model we've also adopted ourselves.

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You’ve heard of happy hour, but what about a healthy hour? At the American Psychological Association employees have the chance each month to gather at Healthy Hour for a break from their work and participate in physical and mental competitions, play sports and dance games on a Wii and socialize with colleagues.

Organized by APA’s Staff Initiatives Office, the monthly event energizes employees, increases healthy behaviors, improves morale and creates camaraderie among the staff.

Competitions range from hula hooping to memory games and plank holding to hopping across the room on one foot. Physical activity isn’t the only offering: employees can watch funny TV shows and snack on healthy foods. Winners of the games are rewarded with fun prizes, but let’s face it—with healthy breaks we are all winners.

Encouraging employees to get active pays off: Research has shown that employees who spend 2.5 hours a week being physically active were more satisfied with the quantity and quality of their work, reported increased work ability and took less sick time than employees who did not engage in physical activity.

At a recent Healthy Hour, APA employee Heather Dade takes a break during her workday to play a game, meet up with coworkers and snack on fresh-cut vegetables, fruits and dip. “Participating in Healthy Hour always rejuvenates me,” she says. “I love the games and other activities offered, the healthy snacks, and getting a chance to chat with co-workers that I don’t get to see regularly.

“I get my energy level up playing ping-pong or one of the cool activities that is offered there and come back to my office ready to get to work.”

These types of healthy breaks are good for the employee and also benefit the employer.

People who take short breaks are more productive and able to focus on a task for a prolonged amount of time than people who do not, according to a 2011 study published in Cognition. While this may seem counterintuitive, breaks leave employees feeling more refreshed, recharged and able to complete their next task.

Towhanna Boston never misses a healthy hour. “I attend our healthy hours because it forces me to feel better mentally, physically and emotionally. It is a true refresher in between our daily APA routines.”

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Tara Davis is director of the Staff Initiatives Office, which is part of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from July 2016 listed from newest to oldest.

May 2016 is the previous archive.

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