Dear boss: Go on vacation

Vacations improve productivity!

Over the past decade, a staggering number of studies have demonstrated that our work performance plummets when we work prolonged periods without a break. We know that overworked employees are prone to mood swings, impulsive decision-making and poor concentration. Worse still, they are prone to negativity – and that negativity is contagious.

Yet at the average American company, 4 out of 10 employees (including those in management roles) will forfeit vacation time this year.

There is every reason to believe that the cost of the mental and physical depletion that invariably results is exponential when its victim is a manager. Not just because a supervisor’s mood and decision-making affects more people, but because when a manager chooses to forgo time off, it starts a domino effect that shapes cultural norms.

We have compelling evidence that the restorative experiences we have on vacations bring us a sharpened attention, mental clarity and inspired insights. Take reaction time – a simple measure that indicates how quickly we pick up on new information. Research commissioned by NASA found that after just a few days of vacation, people’s reaction time jumps by an astonishing 80%.

Vacations are not only a boon to the way we think; they also foster greater life satisfaction. Just last year, Gallup released an eye-opening study showing that how often you vacation is a better predicator of your well-being than the amount of money you earn. In fact, according to Gallup’s data, a regular vacationer earning $24,000 a year is generally happier than an infrequent vacationer earning 5 times as much.

Just why do vacations affect us so strongly? In part, it’s because they allow us to disengage from the stress of work and replenish our mental and physical energy. But psychologists believe there’s more to the story than just recovery. Vacations provide us with an opportunity to engage in autonomous experiences and allow us uninterrupted time with loved ones and close friends.

They also enable us to build our competence in hobbies we cherish. In others words, a good vacation grants us what we desperately seek in our work – energizing experiences that fulfill our basic, human psychological needs.

Given all the benefits of vacations, perhaps it’s time we considered treating unused vacation days as a valuable metric – one that reflects the inverse of a healthy workplace culture; an indication that a company is suffering from energy mismanagement.

So how do we reverse the trend of unused vacation time? How do we get more people feeling good about taking vacations when clearly, their company benefits from them taking a break? Encouraging managers to model the right behaviors and educating employees about the benefits of time off is a good start, but it’s unlikely to be enough – not when recent economic struggles have trained so many workers to avoid appearing replaceable, even if it’s for just a few days.

For those who are genuinely serious about getting employees to vacation, a more promising approach involves offering a monetary incentive that rewards taking time off. It’s a tactic that’s slowly gaining traction among a growing number of companies. The RAND Corporation, for example, no longer pays employees their regular salary while they’re on vacation. Instead, they pay time and a half.

Then there’s the Rolls Royce of vacation policies, furnished by FullContact. The Denver software company has implemented a program that actually pays employees $7,500 to take their family on vacation. The only stipulation is that they not do any work during their time off.

What makes these policies notable is not their generosity. It’s that they provide clear evidence that a company is serious about encouraging employees to restock their mental energy so that they can continue to excel.

(Ron Friedman is the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps leaders build thriving organizations, and the author of “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.”)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate