How and why to prioritize downtime

Rest, vacation, and downtime of all kinds are often seen as luxuries or indulgences. With an ever-growing workload and constant pressure to get ahead, most employees are fighting just to keep up. There doesn’t seem to be room for rest or downtime in the modern workday.

But rest isn’t a luxury. It’s absolutely critical to doing your best work, and staying healthy.

People who don’t get adequate downtime have a higher risk of heart attack and depression. There’s also a correlation between taking vacations and being promoted—possibly due to the positive outlook and increased productivity that come from vacation time.

Downtime also helps our bodies recover, so we take fewer sick days (costing our companies less money), and it increases our ability to think creatively.

If you’re struggling to make downtime a priority in your company, here are three ways to change that.

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How to prioritize downtime for your employees (and yourself)

1. Make vacation mandatory

While many tech companies tout unlimited vacation time as an employee perk, in practice it just doesn’t work. Around half of American employees don’t take all the vacation days they’re owed, and more than half work during vacation anyway.

Adding more vacation allowance is pointless if employees are unlikely to use what they’re already getting.

Mathias Meyer, CEO of tech company Travis CI, has written about how an open vacation policy failed in his company:

When people are uncertain about how many days it’s okay to take off, you’ll see curious things happen. People will hesitate to take a vacation as they don’t want to seem like that person who’s taking the most vacation days. It’s a race to the bottom instead of a race towards a well rested and happy team.

Meyer’s solution was to replace the open vacation policy at Travis CI with a minimum vacation policy. 25 paid vacation days is now the mandatory minimum for all employees, including the company’s founders. Though employees can take more vacation if they want to, enforcing this minimum across the team ensures everyone gets some amount of time to focus on rest and recovery.

Global aviation strategy firm SimpliFlying tried a similar experiment of recurring, scheduled, mandatory vacation for its 10 employees. SimpliFlying’s experiment was more rigid, however, with employees taking one week of vacation every seven weeks on a schedule, rather than when they wanted to.

The structured schedule meant everyone knew well ahead of time when someone would be taking a week off, rather than employees choosing when to take their vacation. It was easier to schedule having people out of the office with so much advance warning. And because everyone was involved in the experiment, there was no guilt about going on vacation or not being in the office. It became normal.

No work was allowed during vacation, and contacting the office in any way during vacation meant you didn’t get paid for that week. This financial disincentive was designed to make switching off during vacation the norm.

After 12 weeks of the experiment, managers reported creativity in employees went up 33%, productivity by 13%, and happiness by 25%.

The company found every seven weeks was too often for vacation weeks in a company of just 10 employees. They also decided to stagger vacation weeks in future, so there would never be back-to-back weeks with people out of the office.

Having weeks of everyone in the office was important for continuity. But overall, the experiment showed promising signs of improved outlook and productivity among the team.

This research is early, but shows promise for finding ways to make regular vacation the norm, and switching off completely during vacation both possible and expected.

Whether you simply monitor vacation days taken and ensure every employee takes a minimum amount of time off each year, or you try a recurring, scheduled vacation period to ensure your team gets regular break periods, finding ways to make vacation mandatory ensures employees get the rest they need, that they won’t take for themselves.

2. Ban work during vacation

Even if your employees start taking the vacation days they need, it’s common to work during vacation, which defeats the point. Meyer found this was also an issue with the early vacation approach at Travis CI:

The guilt of taking time off takes over, and you “just check in” or promise to be available if anything comes up. You respond to just one email or just one GitHub issue.

This ambiguity trickles through to everyone on your team. When someone starts checking in during their vacation, it lowers the bar for others to do it, and it increases the uncertainty of whether or not you should be checking in. When you as the leader in a company take vacations like that, you unknowningly [sic] set a bad example that others will feel compelled to follow.

The expectation to work during vacation can also be encouraged unwittingly by contacting employees during their time off. Rather than assuming employees will know whether they’re expected to reply or be available, make the expectation explicit that employees on vacation shouldn’t be in contact with the office. Ensure that those left in the office don’t contact employees on vacation, or encourage those taking time off to pause their inbox or set up auto-responders so they can relax in peace.

Colorado tech company Full Contact prohibits working on vacation and offers an annual stipend that must be used on vacation to encourage employees to take time off. Founder Bart Lorang says prohibiting work during vacation encourages programmers to better document their code and share their knowledge so they’re not needed during vacation time. It also gives their direct reports more chances to make decisions for themselves and grow in their roles.

Another way to use vacation time to encourage team growth is to have leaders choose a trusted direct report to step up in their absence. This gives the employee a chance to learn new skills and grow beyond their current role. It also encourages leaders to switch off during vacation, as checking in would show a lack of trust in the employee they’ve chosen to take their place.

3. Commit to vacation ahead of time

Though pushing for more vacation time and fully switching off from work might sound good in theory, it can be difficult to put this into practice.

David Dunning, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan suggests setting a deadline early in the year and asking workers to pre-commit to vacation dates. This is a way of bringing planning for a future vacation closer to the present:

I think work-life balance is a function of planning. And hopefully, planning one day becomes a habit.

Unfortunately, humans pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in the present or short-term, and struggle to make good decisions for the long-term. Finding ways to bring our future planning forward can encourage us to make better decisions now that will benefit us in the future.

If you’ve implemented a minimum vacation policy, you could set a deadline part-way through the year to have employees confirm their vacation dates. This way, though they might feel harried and unable to take time off when the deadline rolls around, by the time their pre-planned vacation days come up, they won’t have a choice. They’ll be better off for taking some time to rest, but may need that extra push to ensure they do so.

Another way we can bring our future planning forward is through a “pre-commitment device.” Research shows pre-commitments, or binding contracts, help us bring the future closer to the present and force ourselves into making better decisions.

Behavioral economist Iris Bohnet sends her children to day care rather than hiring a nanny, as a pre-commitment device:

That way, you actually have to go home. The day-care center closes at 6 p.m. Even though everyone loves their kids, it’s just harder in the moment not to answer those ten emails, to make this one phone call. Then once we’re home, we think, ‘My God, it’s so wonderful to be home, how could we have wanted to stay at the office?’

Paying for accommodation or buying a cruise is the kind of pre-commitment device that forces us into taking vacation that we might otherwise put off. You can also use this approach to ensure you leave the office on time and don’t work long hours by committing to never missing family dinner, or scheduling a team sport or fitness class for right after work.

Once we recognize that we tend to be bad at making decisions that are good for us in the long-term, we can use these approaches to encourage our present selves to do what’s best for our future selves.

Whether you’re worried about low productivity, the cost of absenteeism, or the health risks of not getting enough downtime, rest from work is clearly important.

Finding ways to encourage time off among your employees will lead to gains in the long-term, even if it’s not easy at first.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.