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The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks Are Good for Productivity

The first week of August is one of the most popular times for people to take off work. But it might just make us better at our job. For proof, we're republishing this article from 2011 on the science of productivity.

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Man takes nap on beach, possibly after reading and choosing to embody the latest economic research on productivity and breaks; Reuters

American workers love to work. Or perhaps they're afraid not to.

A 2010 survey indicated that the average American accrues 18 vacation days and uses only 16. The average French worker takes more than twice the vacation time. To some, this statistic encapsulates the difference between American and European workers. We're productive. They're lazy.  In fact, it might say the opposite. Europeans understand that breaks improve workplace efficiency. We mistakenly believe that more hours will always increase output, while ignoring the clear evidence: The secret to being an effective worker is not working too hard.

In 1999, a Wall Street insurance company called New Century Global wanted to improve efficiency. They tapped an unlikely source for help: The Cornell University Ergonomics Research Laboratory. Most people consider "ergonomics" synonymous with groovy chair designs. But the official definition is the study of people's efficiency in the workplace. Cornell's lab is one of the country's most famous research centers for studying hardware and software for office productivity. It conducted a 10-week study at New Century Global with a computer program that reminded workers to keep good posture and take short breaks.

The more we learn about human attention, the more limited it seems. Breaks and vacations preserve our attention for later.

Their finding: "Workers receiving the alerts were 13 percent more accurate on average in their work than coworkers who were not reminded."

Eleven years later, we don't need computer software to remind us not to work. The Internet does that just fine, thanks. One study found that "Internet misuse" costs U.S. companies more than $178 billion annually in lost productivity. Another put Web-related losses at $5,000 per employee per year. Yet another found a small company could be losing 15 percent of its profits due to email and social media abuse.

But some researchers are saying hogwash to all that. The National University of Singapore found that "those who spent less than 20 percent of their time perusing the Internet's silly offerings were 9 percent more productive than those who resist going online," Rebecca Greenfield reported in the Atlantic Wire.

Who might have guessed that kitty videos and cake blogs would make us more productive? Henry Ford, probably. In the mid-1920s, the auto giant reduced his factories' workweek from six days to five, and 48 hours to 40, after discovering that productivity returns diminished steadily after his workers toiled eight hours a day, five days a week.

"We know from our experience in changing from six to five days and back again that we can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six," Ford said. "Just as the eight hour day opened our way to prosperity, so the five day week will open our way to a still greater prosperity."

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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