woman standing in nature with her head up and arms out
From increased productivity and engagement to finding more meaning in one's work, there are several reasons why employers and employees alike must make it a point to take time off. — Getty Images/Jasmina007

Quality time off, really getting away from work and doing other things you enjoy, is vital to your health and your success as a small business owner. It’s equally important for your employees, especially in terms of motivation, according to a mountain of research on the topic. But the modern American work pace tends to discourage time off, and Americans take a lot less of it than people in most other countries. Among the negative effects: Employees who don’t get sufficient time off simply goof off more at work.

The latest research reveals that people stuck working on traditional days off—especially when they know others are taking a break—end up enjoying their work less.

“Spending weekends or holidays working undermines one of the most important factors that determines whether people persist in their work: intrinsic motivation,” according to Laura Giurge, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow of organizational behavior at the London Business School and Kaitlin Woolley, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.

“People feel intrinsically motivated when they engage in activities that they find interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful,” Giurge and Woolley write in the Harvard Business Review. “Our data shows that working during leisure time creates internal conflict between pursuing personal and professional goals, leading people to enjoy their work less.” If you truly must work on a weekend or during a holiday, it can be useful to think of that time as “work time,” the researchers find. Relabeling the time in your mind helps curb the disappointment that otherwise saps motivation.

But what you and your team really need is more time away from it all. CO— reached out to Giurge to learn why time off is so vital, and how to get some:

CO—: Is it possible that business owners who truly love their work might not need time off as much as, say, owners who are motivated more by making a living than by the intrinsic satisfaction of the work?

Giurge: A common misperception is that people who love their work wouldn’t need to take time off. However, increasing evidence points towards the benefits of taking time off for all of us, regardless of our work motivation. If anything, those who work not only for extrinsic reasons such as financial compensation, but also for intrinsic reasons are at higher risk of overworking, not taking time off, and even worse being mistreated by organizations.

Along with vacations, it is important to make space for small breaks and moments to disconnect from work.

Laura Giurge, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow of organizational behavior, London Business School

CO—: What would be your upshot advice for a small business owner who just feels indispensable, like they can never really get a day off, let alone a week, and their livelihood depends on keeping the business going every day, every week?

Giurge: Communicate with your team and find ways to coordinate workload and work availability. The idea that we need to be available and working 24/7 is counterproductive and perpetuates unhealthy work cultures.

When we feel pressed for time and overwhelmed, we tend to engage in behaviors that work against us, such as doing small, trivial tasks or multitasking rather than tackling the more important tasks. These strategies might work in the short-run, but as research has shown, it tends to harm long-term productivity. And it makes sense if you think about it. If you are not well-rested and focused, your speed and accuracy will decrease and your work will be prone to more errors that over time can seriously harm not only your well-being but also your business.

Ask yourself:

  • Can you delegate some of your work to your team?
  • What are the most important tasks to address?
  • What times in the day are you least productive and could you use those times to disconnect?

So we would say that it’s less about being available all the time and more about clear communication and alignment of when you are available and when not, what is important to accomplish, and by when.

CO—: Is the occasional day off (or weekend, or week) sufficient for a typical small business owner?

Giurge: Yes! This is another misconception that many of us have, as if vacations are a magic tool that can power us through the year. Vacations are a necessary but not a sufficient tool to deal with stress and avoid burnout. This is in part because the effects of vacations wear off after a few days.

Along with vacations, it is important to make space for small breaks and moments to disconnect from work. It is equally important to make space for important work during work hours (one strategy is outlined here). We recently conducted a large field study on this strategy and found that it can decrease burnout by 6% and increase self-reported performance by 10% [podcast on Spotify].

There is no minimum or optimal amount of time off. However, it’s important to take frequent breaks both during and outside work and make sure those breaks are spent well — meaning engage in active leisure like exercising, socializing with friends and family and volunteering, and try to avoid fragmenting your leisure time by checking email or social media. For the benefits of time off to truly emerge, it’s important to be present.

CO—: Similarly, what advice would you offer a small business owner regarding employee time off, given that unlike larger businesses, each employee (among perhaps only a few dozen or fewer) might be relatively irreplaceable?

Giurge: It’s absolutely crucial to make space for time off in order to ensure long-term productivity and engagement. There is research to suggest that people who take time off actually find greater meaning in their work, and one of the most recent studies in this sphere shows how providing employees with a gift of more leisure time (compared to an equivalent monetary gift of a 75% wage increase, or to no gift) increased their performance by 25%, because it reduced on-the-job leisure consumptions by 45%.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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What the new stimulus bill means for small business

Watch our event replay from Tuesday, January 19, where we continue to discuss and answer questions on the new coronavirus relief bill and how it pertains to small businesses.



Published December 16, 2020