The Pulse

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It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy. The sun is shining and visions of lounging by the water with a cold drink in your hand dance in your head. But you have work to do. Instead of giving in to temptation and booking a beach day, you hunker down and get back to the task at hand.

Does this scenario sound familiar? What if not taking a vacation could actually be hurting your productivity? On average, Americans only take approximately half of their available paid time off. Not taking full advantage of your vacation days, however, can be bad for your brain as well as the rest of your body. Creativity, performance and your overall health can all be negatively affected if you don’t embrace opportunities to step away from the office and relax.

Taking time off can help to improve:

Performance and Creativity

When you’re tired and there’s work left to accomplish, the most common instinct is to push through and get the job done. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the best course of action. Vacation deprivation can cause exhaustion, resentment and increased mistakes on the job. Pushing yourself too hard for too many hours each day will cause your brain to push back.  Suddenly the simplest task feels impossible to complete. When this happens, the best thing to do is take a break. Pushing too hard is bad for your brain.

“There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources,” says professor at Virginia Commonwealth University Allison Gabriel. “When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performances decline. You’re able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks.”

We all know the importance of getting a good night’s sleep, but the same principle applies to taking vacations. Research shows that an increased amount of down time can actually help you work better. Taking breaks at work and turning attention to a simple task can give a different part of your brain time to step in and solve problems. Taking more frequent vacations, especially traveling to different locations, helps the brain refresh even further. Time away from work, therefore, helps us to perform at our highest potential.

The mentality that non-stop work is the only way to achieve success is what keeps entrepreneurs and employees exhausted and, ultimately, reaping less rewards. “It’s not the amount of time you spend working each day,” says author and Strategic Coach co-founder Dan Sullivan. “Entrepreneurs get paid through problem-solving and creativity. You can create a solution in a shorter period of time if you are rested and rejuvenated.”

Time away from the office and day-to-day tasks allows for employees to find creative responses to larger business challenges. Think of the brain as a machine. Quality output can only be achieved through regular refueling. Taking the time to relax in a non-work environment can help you to see problems from a fresh perspective. This type of creative problem solving can be applied to all types of business, not just creative fields. Giving the mind and body a change of pace and time to recharge can help employees return to work with more motivation and energy.


Those who are seen to as working hardest in the workplace are the ones who are rewarded. Playtime is seen as lazy or unproductive, but all work and no play leads to burnout. Employees who regularly use up their vacation days and actively enjoy their time off can benefit both mentally and physically. They tend to be less stressed and have a lower risk of heart disease and depression. Not taking time off work can pose serious health risks, and there’s science to prove it.

In order to adapt and thrive, it is important to learn how to relax. Otherwise, you might not be able to in the future. “Without time and opportunity to do this, the neural connections that produce feelings of calm and peacefulness become weaker, making it actually more difficult to shift into less-stressed modes,” explains clinical psychologist Deborah Mulhern. “What neuroscience is showing is that we require down time in order for our bodies to go through the process of restoration. It is only when we are safe from external stresses that our bodies can relax enough to activate restoration.”

Vacations build resilience and taking time to play is necessary to make our brains more responsive, flexible, skilled and social. Scientists have discovered that depriving young rats of play caused their cortisol levels to stay so high they died. While this is an extreme example, it illustrates the importance of play in building resilience and curbing stress.

Time away from the stresses of work boosts overall health and feelings of well-being. Workers who take the time to relax while on vacation greatly enjoy their time away. While this feeling of joy dissipates over time, the overall benefits should not be dismissed. Jessica de Bloom, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tampere in Finland said “It would be like asking, ‘Why do we sleep despite the fact that we get tired again?’” The experiences we have on vacation are just as important to maintaining our brain’s physiological function as sleep is. Remembering the fun of a vacation can impact our current level of happiness.

The Framingham Heart study found vacations also significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. Men who went several years without taking a vacation increased their risk of heart attacks by 30 percent. It is just as important to regularly take vacations, rather than banking them over the course of a couple of years. This same study found that skipping holidays for just one year could increase the risk of heart disease.

The science is in: vacation days improve overall health. Taking days off for vacation translates into less days off due to illness, thereby increasing overall productivity. Healthier employees are happier, more engaged and motivated to achieve their goals.

Whether you are running a business or trying to impress your employer, paid vacation benefits everyone equally. By encouraging employees to take time off and not feeling guilty when you take time off for yourself, efficiency and overall job satisfaction can be increased while employee turnover is decreased. So, book that day off to frolic in the sun knowing you are actually helping the overall success of your company.

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