How taking annual leave improves resilience and work performance

Earlier this year one of my colleagues honoured me for “not giving a f*ck about the business” after I took 5 days off for annual leave. I was shocked he thought I shouldn’t have completely disconnected from work during holiday/vacation time. Having brought myself back from the brink of burnout with another holiday last week I decided to dig into how time away from work actually bolsters work performance.

Earlier this year one of my colleagues honoured me for “not giving a f*ck about the business” after I took 5 days off for annual leave. I was shocked he thought I shouldn’t have completely disconnected from work during holiday/vacation time. Having brought myself back from the brink of burnout with another recent holiday I decided to dig into how time away from work actually bolsters work performance, outcome below.

A study from colleagues at the University of Mannheim found that it’s those most in need of a break who find it hardest to detach from work thoughts. As leaders it’s our job to make sure our teams/departments aren’t set up with everything balancing precariously on one person. I strongly believe that if the business can’t run without a particular person being present then we’re doing something wrong. If you’re of the same opinion as my colleague perhaps you need to look at the structure of your business/department and look at where there are bottlenecks, hoarding of information or unnecessary barriers to decision-making preventing key players from detaching from work completely.

Recovery from work is vital

Even where this isn’t the case it seems that big workloads have become the norm regardless of industry. Jobs are often highly demanding both cognitively and emotionally but people aren’t machines. It’s not enough that employees are motivated, knowledgeable and very skilled at their role they also need to be healthy – physically and mentally – to stay focused, engaged and energised to cope with this long-term. A study by Sabine Sonnentag from the University of Mannheim has identified “recovery from work as an important mechanism that explains how employees can stay energetic, engaged, and healthy, even when facing high job demands”. This comes as no surprise to me and if you’ve ever returned from holiday with renewed vigour and enthusiasm you’ll believe this too.

We’re working for free

Science has proven that the relaxation of a holiday helps us feel less stressed and more energised. Researchers from the University of California found that a resort-based holiday does exactly that and has an immediate and strong impact on our immune system. However, a 2017 study by British Airways found that one-third of working Brits did not take their full annual leave allowance, 69% never took a two-week break and that 16% of people surveyed felt guilty about using all of their annual leave.

In 2018 Glassdoor reported that 40% of workers took a maximum of half their holidays with only 43% taking 91 – 100% of their annual leave entitlement.(13% took just 20% of their entitlement!) Only 50% of the people they spoke to said they could completely relax on holiday. Everyone else said they were expected to be contactable and to help out with work if need be. 23% said they were checking work emails regularly during their holiday and 15% of people said they were working on holiday through fear of falling behind. 6% cited fear of losing their job as the reason to work when on annual leave.

Leaders need to set the holiday pace

Given we’ve seen above how beneficial (and really, necessary) it is for people to have time completely away from work we have to ensure we’re enabling this. Therefore as leaders we not only have to look after our own wellbeing but set an example for our teams. We need to show that it’s “safe” for our people to disconnect from work. Written contracts might state that we get 28 days’ holiday but if our company culture says it’s not ok to take them then there’s work to be done. We also need to do better in respecting boundaries.The Glassdoor study showed that 15% of managers had contacted a team member who was on holiday.

Of course if people choose to work on holiday and truly believe that it has no negative impacts for them then they can do so. My male boss recently said that for him, holidays are more of a change of scene to boost creativity than a break to completely disconnect. However I’d encourage leaders to work discreetly if that’s the case so as not to set working on holiday as the norm and the unwritten rule of what’s expected.

A change of scene or a need to replenish?

My view is that different elements come into play around personal feelings towards holidays. I believe the type and intensity of work is a factor into how much space is needed, which coincides with Sonnentag’s findings above. I also think the balance of masculine and feminine energy within a person influences this. People with high levels of masculine energy (usually men) have energy more like the sun, that is, constant and consistent. People who have higher levels of feminine energy (usually women) are more like the waxing and waning moon. Their energy is not consistent and their energy comes in cycles.

Our role as leaders

As modern leaders, it’s not our place to dictate who needs what. Our people know what they need and it’s our job to safeguard their wellbeing and uphold their entitlements. If they can’t see how they can disconnect to take their entitlement, it’s our job to help them facilitate that.
Bearing in mind that many of the positive effects of holidays tend to only last 2 – 4 weeks upon returning to work, it’s important we recognise the need for regular breaks too. We need to discourage the idea that taking time off will result in negative movement within the company since according to Harvard Business Review, Americans who took more than 10 of their 14 vacation days had a 65.4% chance of receiving a raise or bonus compared to those who took fewer days.

With 64 percent of people saying they are ”refreshed and excited to get back to my job” post holiday I invite you to consider the cost to your business of employees not taking their full annual leave entitlement. Apparently unused holiday costs U.S. business $224 billion per year – food for thought for sure.

Despite a stressful start (I can vouch for what HBR says about avoiding last minute planning stress to maximise ROI on taking holiday) my recent holiday hiking in nature had the desired effect. If you’re looking for your own inspiration for a break have a read of Walking the Camí de Cavills: 10 Days in the Biosphere Reserve of Menorca.

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