National Edition

To be fitter, happier, more productive, take a break

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 7 2013 2:20 p.m. MDT

In this June 3, 2013, photo, Nora Kouba, an employee at USG Corporation sits at her work station in Chicago. Over the years, Kouba has made use of a benefit offered by USG that allows their workers to buy and sell vacation time, a perk that gives workers more flexibility in managing their time off. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

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In 1910, President William Howard Taft was asked by the New York Times: "How long should a man's vacation be?"

Americans today are likely to laugh at Taft's suggestion of taking two or three months off, as many are trying to squeeze in a mere week of vacation before summer ends. When it comes to taking breaks from the daily grind, Americans aren't doing very much of it.

According to a 2008 study from the Families and Work Institute, a think tank that focuses on the changing work force and family, American employees receive an average of 15 paid vacation days per year. And even when offered it, employees often do not take all of the vacation they are entitled to. Half of the work force took 13 days or less.

Taft reasoned that vacations provide needed energy and effectiveness, which is backed by a growing body of evidence that time away from the office is important to people's health, well-being and productivity at work. John de Graaft, who is the head of the nonprofit Take Back Your Time and is currently shooting a documentary on vacation time, believes that the long-term benefits of vacation time for employees outweighs the short-term savings of remaining in the office.

"Vacation time is a chance for employees to unwind and avoid burnout," he said, "and for employers to have happier and better workers."

Time off is productive

When entrepreneur Henry Ford decreased the workweek of his employees from 48 to 40 hours per week, he found that their productivity actually increased. Similarly, studies are finding that vacation time is important for happy, hard-working employees.

A 2011 study conducted by Expedia found that of those surveyed, 45 percent agreed that "they come back to work feeling rested, rejuvenated, and reconnected to their personal life" after vacation, and 35 percent said "they return from vacation feeling better about their job and feeling more productive."

Even in studies that don't rely on self-reporting, there is evidence of improved productivity among workers who take vacation. An internal study done by major accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2006 found vacation time was actually correlated with stronger performance. It concluded that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their performance reviews from supervisors were 8 percent higher the following year. The study also found that employees who took vacation time were less likely to leave than their presumably burnt-out counterparts.

According to de Graaft, one of the major reasons that companies don't offer more vacation time is a short-term view of profits. While research reveals the long-term economic benefits of allowing employees more vacation time, executives and managers tend to focus primarily on short-term profits. In America, he said, "shareholders are calling for quarterly report, not the five-year."

Vacation for your health

Even more important to businesses than the benefits of a boost in productivity could be the costs associated with health problems that result from a lack of vacation time. Research has found that vacation is not only fun and refreshing, it may also promote good health.

One of the most comprehensive studies on vacation time and health was the Framingham Heart Study, a cardiovascular study that began in 1948 to follow people who were at risk of heart disease. The researchers found that the women in the study who took at least two vacations a year were almost eight times less likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack than women who only vacationed every six years or less. Similarly for men, a 2000 SUNY-Oswego study that followed 12,000 middle-age men over nine years found that taking a yearly vacation decreases the risk of a fatal heart attack by 32 percent.