Remember vacations? Time out, beachside cocktails, relaxing vistas…
For many startup founders, vacations are a distant memory, something that other people get to do because we simply don’t have time for that. Our own teams are afforded nice vacation packages, but if we were to take them, who’s left steering the ship?
It’s not just our worries about the business being taken care of, but overall workplace culture in the United States has created a norm of “work martyrs”; people who show up every day, no matter what and pride themselves for not taking sick or vacation days. In fact, American companies have around $224 billion in liabilities from accrued vacation time as workers take less time off.
Couple this cultural trait with the real stresses of being a founder, and you have a cocktail that can lead to some major exhaustion, if not complete burnout.
We get it – the idea of switching off and taking a break can be terrifying, and it’s not always a practical solution to take an extended period off. However, we also know from scientific research that not taking those breaks is most likely messing with both your health and your overall productivity.
Here’s what we know about the relationship between taking breaks and performance:
What happens when you don’t take a break?
We know it’s easy to get caught in the pattern of thinking that your company can’t afford to have you taking breaks, but there is a case to be made that perhaps it can’t afford for you not to:
Chronic stress can take a toll
We all have stress to deal with at some point, but “chronic stress” is characterized as “the grinding stress that wears people away day after day, year after year” (APA). It is stress related to unrelenting demands and pressures, in fact, the “chronic” piece can mean that people become used to it, even comfortable with it.
The problem with chronic stress is that it takes its toll on us both physically and mentally. We experience reduced ability to fight infection, and find ourselves susceptible to illness and injury. We suffer from lack of sleep, digestive issues and can even do damage at a cellular level to our bodies.
Mentally, chronic stress can also take a terrible toll. We can experience irritability, anxiety, depression, burnout, poor memory and a reduced ability to make decisions. Sometimes people experience a kind of malaise or lack of confidence in themselves to make decisions.
Taking breaks can help to break the pattern of stress, giving you the ability to come back to work with renewed vigor.
You can get “stuck”
Hitting the grind day after day can naturally take a toll on your ability to be creative and come up with new ideas. You find yourself struggling to come up with solutions and discover the truth of the idea “more time at work doesn’t mean more productivity.”
Creative energy is often one of the first things to disappear when you’re experiencing founder burnout. You start running on anxiety and nervous energy, which can lead to more negative influences, such as making fear-based decisions.
One of the benefits you are missing out on by not taking vacations is the broadening of your horizons which can occur by experiencing new people, places and things. You discover new ideas, different ways of doing things and benefit simply from a change of scenery.
Having the time to relax can help to put things into perspective and to move you away from anxiety or running on fear.
Interpersonal relationships may be strained
Are your family or team members actively taking steps to avoid you? The irritability that chronic stress can induce often bleeds into interpersonal relationships and has people doing their best not to cross paths with you. Sometimes you might not even realize that you’ve offended someone, which isn’t the best perspective to take into a meeting with potential investors!
This may be a sign that it’s time to take a break and recharge.
One benefit of vacations, as pointed out in a Psychology Today article, is that they contribute strongly to bonding with your family. Shared experiences help to foster enduring connections and positive memories of the family unit. The chances are you’ll return to work in a better mood too!
How taking a vacation can benefit your business
Your brain still works on improving your skills
For many people, the idea that you can actually be productive without devoting specific time to a task may seem a bit bizarre, but researchers have found that when the brain is relaxed, it works on processing new information.
Let’s say you’ve been kicking around some kind of problem, but you’re just not reaching a solution during work hours. This can be a source of stress, potentially inhibiting your brain from coming up with good solutions. Downtime can be your answer. That problem will still marinate somewhere in the recesses of your brain, then boom, in your relaxed state you have an answer.
Throughout our work days (and even while we’re not at work), we tend to be bombarded with information. In fact, we spend so much time just processing information, while much of it will not be directly beneficial to the work we do. No wonder our brains get tired!
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” – Tim Kreider
Daydreaming mode produces creative solutions
In a related point to that made above, the brain’s attentional system operates on two different levels: the task-positive network and the task-negative network. The first is what we operate in when actively engaged in a task, while the second is when your mind wanders, or “daydreaming mode.”
While the mind can obviously wander at work, we spend much of our time in that “task mode.” This is where we can tend to overwork and exhaust our brains, leaving little room for daydreaming.
Giving our brains the space to work on nothing at all is often when our most creative solutions suddenly pop up. The flow of connections among seemingly disparate ideas and thoughts can give us our best moments of insight.Reason #602 for founders to take vacations: daydreaming improves creativity! Click To Tweet
You might have happier team members
If your own irritability has taken a toll on relations among team members, taking a break and coming back renewed can be a great thing to contribute to a happier team. Research shows what we know intuitively – happier team members are more productive!
This is a good reason to ensure that your company’s vacation policy is applied by all team members, including yourself. It’s a way to promote a happy, healthy lifestyle for all.
You discover that others are capable
One of the core arguments of founders against taking a vacation is that “others can’t do what I do.” Ask yourself, is this really true? Could it be that you hold so tightly to the reins that no one else really has the chance to step up in the first place?
Sure, someone might do things in a different way, but this might even be a good thing. Allowing others to step up gives them the opportunity to bring their own ideas and experience to the table in a way that they might not with you hovering over them. You just might find that loosening your tight grip allows creativity to flow.
Besides that, how many honest-to-goodness disasters have you heard of occurring just because a founder took a vacation? The chances are, if you have good systems in place and a trustworthy team, all will be well.
How “strategic renewal” can help
Here’s a side-note for anyone who says, “I really can’t take more than a couple of days off.” While eight days is an ideal vacation length to hit peak happiness, spending more time doing less, or “strategic renewal” can still have great benefits.
Strategic renewal might include activities like afternoon naps, finishing work early, longer sleep hours, daytime workouts and regular mini-vacations. These activities can boost your job performance, productivity and health.
If you’re going through a busy period where you really can’t take a longer break, it is worth it for your physical and mental health to ensure that you have some practices in place for strategic renewal. Our energy might be finite, but it is renewable.
Startup founders are often the worst offenders in a culture that admires “work martyrs.” However, taking a break can be one of the best things you can do to bring renewed vigor and creativity to your business.
Quite simply, you need breaks for your physical and mental health. A vacation is a great recharger of our energy, but even smaller “strategic renewal” practices can help.
When was the last time you took a decent break? Perhaps you’re well overdue…