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Three myths about vacation and productivity

Anand Narasimhan
Anand Narasimhan is Professor of Organizational Behavior at IMD. He teaches in the Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) program and in the International Seminar for Top Executives (ISTE)

The first myth - Beware of the employer that tells you: "Vacations are good for recharging the batteries." That's a nice metaphor. But when was the last time you saw a 9-volt lounging at the pool? Sure, if you engage in physical labor - assembling widgets, shooting hoops, or touch-typing court proceedings - a vacation will help heal joints and stave off repetitive stress injury. But if you are reading this column, you are likely a knowledge worker. If you are paid to do things like opine why yuan revaluation will impact Arcelor-Mittal's demand forecast or speculate how a new telenovela will affect media buying in Belo Horizonte, then two weeks on the beach will not necessarily make you any smarter than a weekend away from the office. Or at least I haven't seen any research showing the optimal downtime for intellectual labor. I am not convinced that a long vacation recharges brain cells.

The second myth - often sold by the alluring posters of Club Med- is that a vacation is an oasis of peace and quiet. To bust this myth, you only have to turn to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert's conclusion about a trip to Disneyland with the kids: while there, we are completely aware that the hotels are overpriced, that the second-long rides have hour-long waits and that the food is truly awful. Yet, in the end, our brain fools us into reflecting on the wonderful time and forgetting about how truly stressful family bonding can be.

It's not just parents with kids that encounter stress on vacation. In these days of too much information, kid-free couples have other things to worry about. Perhaps the beach resort they booked at was not rated No. 1 on TripAdvisor, or that the plane tickets could have cost less on Priceline, or that they might not look supremely shapely in their new swimsuits. They are anxious about not getting the maximum juice out of the vacation. And for singletons, it's even worse. You are on permanent heightened alert, hoping that this will be the vacation that finally changes your Facebook status. The inconvenient truth is that the most relaxing part of the vacation is the day we return to work.

(For more, read Prof. Bottger's article; Of course you need a vacation)

Finally, the third myth is that employers care a lot about productivity. They do, but not as much as commitment. Scholars that study assembly line as well as professional service work have concluded that the corporation cares more about capturing your soul than it does your labor. Note Barcelona's enthusiasm to sign World Cup star Cesc Fabergas. Or the public outrage from owner Dan Gilbert at LeBron James's "great betrayal" in leaving the Cavaliers. Both teams are more concerned with demonstrating that they have the power to pull and retain talent than they are with the number of goals or hoops their stars might get.

In creative and intellectual industries, pulling power for tomorrow contributes more to share-price than today's productivity. So what employers really care about is knowing that you'll stay committed, regardless of whether you're at the office or on the beach. The insightful sociologist Mark Suchman once told me of a billboard that bothered him. It showed a woman lounging on a beach chair typing away on her laptop. The caption read: "In the office of the future, there will be no office." Suchman said: "While my eyes read the caption accurately, my brain offered a mischievous - but truer - reading: In the vacation of the future, there is no vacation."

By Anand Narasimhan

 |  August 20, 2010; 10:34 AM ET |  Category:  Corporate social responsibility , Culture , Decision-making Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Of course you need a vacation | Next: Mosque controversy showcases failure to lead American public to understanding


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Um, yeah, I bet the author takes more vacation in a year than the average American takes in a decade.

Posted by: mattsoundworld | August 22, 2010 9:03 PM

I agree with the others who guess that the author "lives to work" instead of "works to live."

If having a real family connection is more important than work, then taking a vacation is more important than not taking one. Even if the hot dogs cost $4.00. This is our hot dog together, doing what we want to do, choosing to spend time together where we can afford to spend it.

As for point #3, the doc seems to be saying "don't take a vacation because your company doesn't want you to." That's completely unnecessary. There are already too many voices telling us to shut up and be a cog in the machine.

Posted by: ACounter | August 22, 2010 6:45 PM

I keep an eye on Trip Advisor's Florida forums, in the event that someone's interested in something other than Disney.

I'm amazed at how many people seem to order their lives around Disney vacations, and who do things like ignore excellent restaurants outside Disney to eat at inferior ones within. It's no longer 1980, when Orlando was still rustic. There's seriously good eating out there.

I'm also amazed that anyone in their right mind would visit inland Florida in summer. Admittedly, Washington during a hot, humid week can be even worse, but I'd much rather go somewhere cool.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | August 22, 2010 6:02 PM

about the 1st myth: this is not a myth IMO. It's not only about about recharging your brain cells: it's about having your whole body enjoying something else than sitting in a chair.

about the 2nd myth: I find only conjectures here that speak more about the author himself than about a clear understanding of what is enjoying relaxing holidays in a luxury resort. Trully: you can go into an expedition and have stresfull holidays. If you cannot manage to relax in a relaxing setting, you might have a much more troubleful imbalance in your own personality.

about the 3rd myth: this is a good point and calls for great European style state intervention. If employers cannot be trusted to understand the concept of vacations, let's have the state imposing that on them.

I still don't know what the author's ultimate intentions are with this article.

Posted by: carlos4 | August 22, 2010 5:16 PM

There is a rumor that the reason for Obama's frequent trips and vacations is due to the fact that there are bedbugs in the White House.

The White House seems like the perfect place for blood suckers and parasites.

Posted by: alance | August 22, 2010 4:06 PM

In WaPo, you just have to tell the truth (or at least something plausible) and you are rewarded with

"What a pompous arse!", "Don't tell me this guy got money for writing this ridiculous piece of nonsense", "Click the link -- it's not a real university, it's some business thing in Switzerland",
etc, etc.

I do not know how the WaPo can manage this hostile nonsense and have decent discussions.

I do not want to say that the author is wholly right, but his points are interesting. We could test them with research. Meanwhile, why diss him? Gives you pleasure to diss people?

Oh, what am I asking? Of course it is fun to diss people if you an angry SOB with time to spare.

Posted by: rohit57 | August 22, 2010 12:49 PM

What a pompous arse! He sounds like a corporate shill who wants to help justify cutting vacation time to boost profits. Obviously, he feels inadequate so he needs to be all work, no fun. Take a trip to a national park, a visit to a museum of your liking, ugh, even a golf tour. The change of pace does relieve the stress of the "daily grind", unless you are a complete "work nerd" with no life on "the outside". These people usually die shortly after retirement since their "life" is over.

Posted by: pjohn2 | August 22, 2010 12:41 PM

Don't tell me this guy got money for writing this ridiculous piece of nonsense.

Who at the Post gave the okay to print this? Maybe he/she needs a permanent vacation.

Posted by: pierrecasteneda | August 22, 2010 11:28 AM

LOL, sounds like a manager explaining why I don't need to go on vacation with that new deadline he committed to...

I go to naturist resorts and I don't stress at all on vacation, only stress is the last day cos I have to go back to work, plus the airlines and the TSA have made flying miserable.

Posted by: datdamwuf2 | August 22, 2010 10:01 AM

Professorial gibberish. You do have to get away from everyday things and pressures even as a knowledge worker.

Posted by: frausch | August 22, 2010 9:40 AM

Oh, so obama's claims... his MULTIPLE claims...

from himself, and from his appointed "messengers" (you know, his staff of dozens in charge of keeping the message on track)... are just NONSENSE.

You mean real data shows obama is just lazy.

Posted by: docwhocuts | August 22, 2010 8:52 AM

Except we value these experiences, even more than the material things (beyond just the subsistence level) our work salaries can buy us? http://www.physorg.com/news189277732.html
Perhaps vacations have a value to our lives, not to work productivity.

Posted by: minorthread | August 22, 2010 8:10 AM

The author provides no evidence for his assertion that these are 'myths,' just anecdotes. Myth 1: vacations don't help relieve stress. Myth 2: vacations are no fun at all, especially with kids. Myth 3: work follows you everywhere. How sad. These myths say more about the writer than they do about these supposed 'myths'.

Posted by: mj64 | August 22, 2010 7:20 AM

Click the link -- it's not a real university, it's some business thing in Switzerland.

This really reflects poorly on the WP. It reads more as an advertisement of some sort. It's full of crazy leaps in "logic" and half truths. Basically, he's saying that you should do nothing but work, work, work all the time so you can be successful, and of course a successful career is all you really need in life. Great for the corporate executives whose underlings work 365 days a year, terrible for those who are, well, human.

"On Leadership" in general is pretty terrible. Honestly, Celebritology is more thoughtful and useful to my career.

Posted by: tuchulcha | August 22, 2010 3:30 AM

You're a Professor!? You sound like someone who hates spending time with your family. I feel sorry for your kids. So there's nothing positive about vacations?

Posted by: Abcdefg5 | August 22, 2010 3:11 AM

Too many worse case scenarios used as examples. Myths 1 and 3 are job-related views of vacations. I think most people look at vacations more personally.

Posted by: Nardo2 | August 21, 2010 11:57 AM

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