WASHINGTON – When I was at the Economist, we had a mandatory five weeks’ worth of annual holiday. By which I mean you had to take it; you could neither roll it over nor forfeit the leave. And like many other Americans in such a situation, I usually ended up getting a note from my boss explaining that I would be taking the entire month of December off.
Journalists like to write opinion pieces complaining about the stingy vacation and holiday policies of U.S. employers, but the policies don’t matter that much, at least for the managerial class, because people don’t take what their companies give them.
Over time, I’ve come to see the wisdom of the Economist’s policy. Employers shouldn’t just give their employees vacation days; they should force them to actually leave the office and go on vacation. No work email, no conference calls, no taking a few papers along with you to read. It’s not just good for the employees, but it’s also good for the company.
I don’t really need to extol the benefits to an employee of a few days off, but I will say that everyone needs to take a break. Over time I’ve noticed that if I go too long between holidays – more than about three months – I start to feel like I’m forcing it, plodding through the day’s stories rather than actually attacking something I’m interested in. That’s a pretty common experience among the people I know. Periodically, you have to stop and give the well a chance to refill. I don’t think it’s an accident that creative people frequently report having breakthroughs after they’d stopped working for a bit and started thinking about something else.
What I’m talking about isn’t the same as reducing stress levels; that’s an oft-supposed benefit of time off that doesn’t actually seem to be true. But while monomaniacal focus is a powerful tool, it’s one that, in my experience, carries sharply diminishing marginal returns. You get tunnel vision, and you miss things that might have occurred to you if you’d stepped outside your office once in a while.
Of course, not every job is a creative tour de force. So here’s the other reason companies should make people take some leave: Employees who never leave the office are dangerous for the company.
In 2011, Credit Suisse decided to require its traders to go on two consecutive weeks of annual leave without access to their computers. This was not because of its tender solicitation for the mental health of the company’s employees. Rather, it figured this would make it easier to catch rogue traders. Two weeks is a long time in the financial markets, and the mandatory leave provides time for 1) unlicensed trading strategies to fall apart or 2) auditors to comb through the portfolio, looking for things that shouldn’t be there.
But you aren’t running a trading floor, you say? Of course you aren’t. However, even the most upstanding, outstanding employee should not be so vital to your firm’s operations that you cannot afford to let them go for a week or two. What if this person leaves the firm? What if they are killed in a car crash? Periodically preparing to do without this person means that if and when they do depart, you will not be plunged into an instant crisis.
You may well want to make exceptions for true emergencies – say, a major client is arrested or threatens to leave the company. But these exceptions should be grudgingly granted only under truly extraordinary circumstances. Otherwise, take their phone, turn off their VPN connection, and tell them to get the heck out of here and not come back without some tan lines.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.