What Happened When One Company Experimented with Mandatory, Scheduled Vacations

What Happened When One Company Experimented with Mandatory, Scheduled Vacations

While a growing body of research shows that taking regular vacations makes employees happier, healthier, more productive, and less likely to burn out—a win-win for the individual and their employer—getting employees to actually take vacations is still a challenge for many organizations. One proposed solution to employees’ reluctance to take breaks is to offer them unlimited leave, but critics of this approach point out that it can backfire, discouraging employees from taking time off because they don’t know how much they are really allowed or expected to take.

To correct for that tendency, some organizations offer employees incentives to take vacations, such as annual travel stipends that they must either spend on leisure travel or forfeit. Others have taken this a step further and make vacations a requirement rather than an option. To that end, Neil Pasricha and Shashank Nigam write at the Harvard Business Review about an experiment they conducted at Nigam’s small aviation strategy firm, SimpliFlying, where they required employees to take one out of every seven weeks off, on a regular schedule. Employees were strictly forbidden from contacting the office while on vacation, losing their pay for the week if they did:

After this experiment was in place for 12 weeks, we had managers rate employee productivity, creativity, and happiness levels before and after the mandatory time off. (We used a five-point Likert scale, using simple statements such as “Ravi is demonstrating creativity in his work,” with the options ranging from one, Strongly Disagree, to five, Strongly Agree.) And what did we find out?

Creativity went up 33%, happiness levels rose 25%, and productivity increased 13%. It’s a small sample, sure, but there’s a meaningful story here. When we dive deeper on creativity, the average employee score was 3.0 before time off and 4.0 after time off. For happiness, the average employee score was 3.2 before time off and 4.0 afterward. And for productivity, the average employee score was 3.2 before and rose to 3.6. …

In other words, the experiment appears to have worked, though they did get some feedback on how to make it better. For one thing, employees at the tiny company found that a vacation every seven weeks was too frequent, and that vacations had to be carefully staggered so teammates did not go on leave back-to-back.

Pasricha and Nigam admit that their experiment was preliminary and uses a very small sample group, but conclude that it adds to the evidence that making sure employees take regular vacations and genuinely disconnect from work while away does enhance employee productivity and happiness, to both their benefit and the company’s.