Time Off: The Natural Performance Enhancer

It’s time to live like an athlete. Not play like one, but rest like one.

Rest and recovery are essential to success in the world of sports. From specialty drinks and bars to sport-specific massages, rollers, and even clothing, athletes know that scheduling recovery time is a necessary part of staying physically fit. If we accept that athletes’ performance on the field is positively impacted by their ability to rest, why don’t we apply that same logic to our own work? How did we end up leaving 662 million unused days in 2016? What would happen if we let ourselves take a break from the office simply to relax and recover?

Americans seem to fear vacation, but it's not because they desperately want to spend all their time at work (one would think). It’s the imagined optics of needing a break that deter workers from using their time. Over a quarter (26%) fear that taking time away would make them appear less dedicated, 23 percent worry that they’ll seem replaceable, and 21 percent admit that they think they’d lose consideration for a job or promotion.

Even the most dedicated athletes know better than to push themselves past their limits. You would appear far more foolish to stay in the competition and risk hurting the team or further injury than to push through the pain for fear of appearing weak. Sure, the physical signs for when to stop are more evident in sports. But, if we're honest with ourselves, too often we're denying the signals of burnout, mental fatigue, and stress in favor of being the work hero.

Let’s take a tip from Roger Federer—you know, the 36-year-old tennis star currently ranked third in the world with a record-shattering 19 Grand Slams? His secret to success: taking time off. Federer was noticeably absent for the latter half of 2016, but returned in January and made quick work of the Australian Open. He then stepped away from competition again only returning to take his record eighth Wimbledon title in July.  

Federer isn’t the only athlete to catch on to time off as a performance enhancer. From Olympians to boxers, rest can be attributed to prolonging not just seasons but entire careers. Michael Phelps “retired” after the 2012 Olympics only to return to Rio to win his 23rd Olympic gold (the most gold medals earned by any individual athlete). Floyd Mayweather retired—and returned—twice, proving victorious in both comebacks. U.S. Olympic cyclist Kristin Armstrong also boasts two retirements. She won her third consecutive Olympic gold at the Rio Games and broke her own record as the oldest female athlete to secure a first-place finish in Olympic cycling. 

While taking a sabbatical or retiring only to un-retire is an extreme measure, the positive impact of taking time off is undeniable; getting away makes employees less stressed, more engaged, and better performers. Workers who take their vacation days report feeling significantly less stressed than those who leave their time on the table (68% to 74%). Additionally, those who plan their days report feeling “very” or “extremely” happy with their relationships, health and well-being, company, and job.

As for employees who pride themselves in playing every game (see work martyrs), statistics show that this mentality can actually be harmful to career success. Work martyrs are less likely to report receiving a raise or promotion in the last three years (79% to 84%), and are more likely to feel more stressed at home (48% to 41%) and at work (73% to 68%) than employees who utilize more of their time off.

Performance should be more important than face time. Athletes know strategic rest can make or break a career. Sitting out for a game doesn’t make them any less dedicated. It means that they’re ready to play their very best every time they step on the court and have a mindset to play hard, rest hard, and win.

Burnout doesn’t discriminate based on job description and whatever your trade, strategic rest does the body and the brain good. If you’re skipping on downtime, consider this a flag on the play. Grab your calendar and take a few days to rest at least as hard as you work. If Roger Federer can find a way to take a break, you can too.

September 15, 2017