The Science Behind Taking Time Off


In all my previous jobs there has been an office shut down over Christmas and New Year. It meant that everyone had to take a mandatory four to five days out of their annual leave allowance, depending on how the year fell. In my first year as a (somewhat spoilt) grad I was very put out by this arrangement. I had just 25 days of holiday in the whole year: Why should my company dictate when I take them?

I now realise how lucky I was. Not least because 25 days of annual leave is extremely generous by global standards. But more importantly because having that time off when no one was working was golden. There was nothing to do and nothing could get done.

Every year I was forced to go home and spend more than a couple of days with my family. My brain, given respite from the daily flow of new information and requests, slowed from sprint mode to a more sustainable pace. I started new projects and saw old friends. And I always returned in January with a clear mind and a full battery.

We all know that stopping and taking a break — whether it’s a long weekend or an extended vacation — is good for us. But for most of us, it’s easier said than done.

According to a 2014 study by Randstad 67% of US workers reported feeling more productive following a vacation. Despite this, in the same study 26% of people reported feeling guilty about taking all of their vacation allowance and 42% said they felt obligated to check their email during vacation.

Various studies have proven that vacations help relieve stress, reduce the risk of depression and lead to improved work performance and creativity. Companies are starting to recognise the productivity benefits of their employees being, well, completely unproductive, at least for short periods:

Last year German car and truckmaker Demailer launched ‘Mail on Holiday’: a system that auto-deletes any email sent to an employee that is scheduled on annual leave. The aim being to rule out the ability to check work emails and increase the likelihood that staff relax and switch off while they are away.

There are some important biological factors that back up this no-compromise approach.

Your brain, like your body, needs rest

Tim Kreider summed it up in an article for The New York Times:

“Idleness is not just an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”

The quotation both summarises how important rest is for our mental wellbeing but also says a lot about the way we view it in society today.

The fact of the matter is that we weren’t designed to be ‘always on’. Our brains are wired to be vigilant so that in the event of a serious threat or attack we can kick into focus. In the past, these threats were few and far between. The way we live and work today means that we’re firing up that response all the time; responding to emails, taking on last-minute requests or binge working on big projects.

At the time, getting stuff done feels great but we’re at risk of exploiting our natural reflexes to the point of exhaustion.

If you feel guilty about switching off when you’re on vacation, over the festive period or otherwise, then consider the fact you could be doing yourself more damage in the long term by not.

Stop working, start solving

In the last ten years or so, neuroscientists have started to dig into what’s going on in our brains when we’re in an idle and relaxed state. Research shows that there’s a lot more going on than we previously thought.

A 2007 study by researchers at Northwestern University showed that resting can help us solve problems faster and increase creativity. The study explored two types of problem solving:

  • Methodical, conscious, search of problem-state transformations.
  • Sudden insight, with abrupt emergence of the solution into consciousness.

The first is the state of focus that, more often than not, we’re in or trying to get in at work. The second is that state when we’re off day dreaming and solutions seem to fall into our lap. In the study, participants in this rested, unfocused state scored far higher on a creative problem-solving task than those who focused intently on the task at hand.

And we’ve all had these moments; when we’ve spent hours at work trying to solve a problem just for everything to fall into place once we stop working on it. Take that and extrapolate it out to a year’s worth of work and holiday at this time of year. It gives us the breathing space to get new perspective on big projects, solve issues that have been in the background for months and reassess the goals we’ve set ourselves.

How to take your holiday

All of this is not to say we should spend the whole holiday period lazing around. In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that doing nothing but hanging out, watching TV or drinking in our leisure can leave us feeling more restless and frazzled than when we started.

Being mindful during your vacation time will help bolster its long-term impact. Immerse yourself in interests that may have been neglected over the year, or find some new ones.

To the question of how long your holiday should be? Well, there’s some science for that too. In 2013, researchers in Finland studying a group of holidaymakers vacationing for an average of 23 days found the benefits to health and wellbeing peaked on the eighth day before steadily declining.

So if you’re taking from Christmas Day until after New Year’s Day that’s 10 days. Enough to get the most out of your time off plus a couple of extra for luck. If you only have a day or two off, put away your laptop, work phone and papers, and enjoy them.

What’s your usual approach to the holiday season? Do you keep one eye on your emails? Or go for the shut down? What do you do to help you switch off?

Tim Mullen

Tim is Co-Founder and Head of Customer Experience at Jobvibe. We help teams work better together. Jobvibe is a simple, smart mobile platform to gather real-time feedback from your team, openly discuss results and improve the way you work together.