WorkLife with Adam Grant
The Science of Recharging on Weekends and Vacations
October 3, 2023
[00:00:00] Shashank Nigam:
It was just so alien that I thought, this is something I definitely need to implement and try out.
[00:00:08] Adam Grant (VO):
This is Shashank Nigam, founder and CEO of a small aviation consultancy, SimpliFlying. A few years ago, he noticed that some of his team members were overworked.
[00:00:18] Shashank Nigam:
I don't think they had taken the time off in the longest time possible. We're gonna try something new.
[00:00:24] Adam Grant (VO):
So he made an announcement!
[00:00:26] Shashank Nigam:
Everyone's gonna take a week off every seven weeks.
[00:00:29] Adam Grant (VO):
That’s right. Mandatory vacation… for everyone.
[00:00:33] Shashank Nigam:
So, we actually added a stick to it as well from day one.
[00:00:37] Adam Grant:
Wait, so you, you punish people if they're working?
[00:00:41] Shashank Nigam:
Yes. On the week off, we will punish you if you're working.
[00:00:44] Adam Grant:
What, what happens to me? How much money do I lose?
[00:00:47] Shashank Nigam:
You lose a week’s worth of pay.
[00:00:49] Adam Grant:
Wow. That's, that's very serious
[00:00:52] Shashank Nigam:
If you reply to any email, WhatsApp, or Slack message internally or to a client, your pay will be docked for the week.
[00:00:58] Adam Grant (VO):
Shashank is onto something. We’re not just failing to take enough vacation– even when we do, we’re failing to use our breaks effectively. And the result is a workforce that feels like it never really gets a rest. It’s time to reimagine our time off from the ground up.
I’m Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with the TED Audio Collective. I’m an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, we explore how to unlock the potential in people and workplaces. Today: time off from work. And how we can remake breaks to actually get the rest we need.
[00:01:46] Adam Grant (VO):
We know that taking time away from work is vital to health, well-being, and performance. But many people don’t even use their paid vacation days. When my mom retired after three decades as a teacher, she had almost an entire year of unused sick days. She felt a responsibility to be there, and she was saving them for an emergency that never came. You probably know people who do something similar. Nearly half of Americans don’t use all their paid vacations!
Some companies have tried to solve that problem by offering unlimited paid time off. It sounds great in theory: instead of restricting freedom, treat people like adults and trust them to manage their own vacations. Sign me up for as much vacation as I want! But the research paints a more complicated picture. On the one hand, unlimited vacations DO convey trust and autonomy. On the other hand, people often end up taking fewer vacation days.
When no one knows how many days off are okay, people start hesitating to take them. They’re afraid to take more vacation than their peers. They don’t want to look like slackers. Soon, an arms race ensues, where everyone minimizes time off to prove their commitment. It’s a vicious cycle. Shashank Nigam saw it happen at his startup, SimpliFlying.
[00:03:04] Shashank Nigam:
We started with an unlimited vacation policy. And it worked very well for certain employees, let's say in Europe, who would definitely take that up. But then for the other half of the company, which was not in Europe or North America, uh, that was a bit of a challenge because some like me and some staff in Singapore or India, we just never took time off.
There was an employee in Spain who was giving us a lesson, a masterclass in taking vacations. He was off every week in April. In the summer, he's off for his, uh, birthday week. Uh, and then he's definitely off for Christmas to see his grandmother. Growing up in Singapore, this was unheard of. Singapore is polar opposite end of the Siesta lifestyle in Spain. So this was new, this was surprising, but I have to admit, I learned to respect him for holding his boundaries and showing the team why vacations are important to begin with.
[00:04:07] Adam Grant (VO):
That employee, Marco, was careful to set boundaries. He didn’t just take vacations. He protected his nights and weekends. Seeing this was transformative for Shashank.
[00:04:18] Shashank Nigam:
And in the end, it allowed me to rethink my own paradigm–work is all about work, work, work, work, work–which I'm sure a lot of people listening, let's say from Singapore or New York or even London would relate to, whereas Marco showed us this can be holistic.
[00:04:35] Adam Grant (VO):
Shashank learned about evidence that taking a sabbatical can reduce burnout. When people are able to take extended leave from work, their stress declines and well-being rises– especially if they really detach from their jobs and leave their home countries.
Sometimes they also return with a better appreciation for work-life balance.
Shashank came across a designer who would shut down his company every seven years – forcing himself AND his employees to take a year-long sabbatical. But sabbaticals are rare outside academia and the military.
[00:05:06] Shashank Nigam:
And I was not in a position, business wise, personally, to take time to take a whole year off at that time.
[00:05:12] Adam Grant (VO):
But that was the light bulb moment. He realized he could start mandating short, regular vacations.
[00:05:18] Shashank Nigam:
Hey, even if we can't take one year off every seven years, what if we take a week off every seven weeks? And that's where it struck. Huh, okay, let's do this.
[00:05:28] Adam Grant (VO):
1 week of vacation for 7 weeks of work. We typically think the longer the vacation, the better we'll feel. But research suggests that the frequency of vacations is more important than the duration. A number of studies have shown that taking a 2-week vacation isn’t any more restorative than going away for one week. So if you want to reduce stress and boost well-being, instead of one long summer holiday, you’re probably better off scheduling a few separate weeklong vacations.
[00:05:58] Shashank Nigam:
If we have these short bursts of vacation throughout the year, you're always recharged and happy at work. It's like a rocket trying to leave the earth's atmosphere with those little boosters at different stages rather than just trying to, you know, burn a huge, um, one, one big piece of rocket.
[00:06:15] Baiba Dreimane:
I thought it's really interesting approach to offer because he was willing to really give everybody one week off every two months. I think that's a lot.
[00:06:25] Adam Grant (VO):
This is Baiba Dreimane. She lives in Valencia, Spain, and she’s a project director at SimpliFlying. She started as an intern in 2016, right when the new vacation policy was being implemented. And, she saw some resistance.
[00:06:39] Baiba Dreimane:
They were like, “What if I wanted to take more than one week off?” There were so many questions in the beginning. So the first few weeks were just like, okay, let's just try. So all of my colleagues, one by one, they took that week off and they were really like, pushed not to use any communication tools. Not respond to messages, anything. Anything. And from what I saw, they were super happy. One of them would start painting classes. The other one, I think he went to a yoga retreat. So like the first vacations, these mandatory vacation times were like… people really paid attention to them, but it's also something new. It's something different. It was quite exciting.
[00:07:13] Adam Grant (VO):
But like many good experiments, it took some iterations to get it right. Because SimpliFlying is a service provider, they learned that they needed to alert clients weeks in advance when their project manager would be off from work. They also needed internal backup on projects. So rather than just one person on a project, there would be TWO minimum. And the vacations were staggered so they weren’t taking their time off at the same time. Think about your role. If you took a week off every other month, who would cover for you? And who would you cover for? Shashank’s team found that based on the nature of their work and the size of their company, they needed to make more adjustments.
[00:07:52] Shashank Nigam:
Every seven weeks was a, a bit too often for a, a small team. Like people were just in and out, in and out. And they were, they were taking weeks off back to back from each other. And that did not allow for transitions to happen within the team. And that was a bigger challenge because we are, we were not a very large company. There were not a lot of systems and processes. A lot of things were based off on our daily standup call, which we did every morning for 30 minutes. So imagine if, Adam, you are my manager and you are off one week and you come back and I'm off that week, there is no handover. And then by the time it's the week after and someone else is off…
[00:08:33] Adam Grant (VO):
So Shashank changed the policy from every seven weeks to every eight weeks. He set a rule that time off needed to be spaced out—people on the same team couldn’t take back-to-back weeks off. And employees would stick to one week off at a time, unless it was an extenuating circumstance.
[00:08:50] Shashank Nigam:
So we made a few changes in that first iteration. That was very, very important. And then we learned from it. And since then, the policy has stayed the same. And it's been more than five years now we've been doing this.
[00:09:02] Adam Grant (VO):
In toxic cultures, time off is a reward earned by working to exhaustion. Burnout is proof of dedication, and vacations are required to recover. In healthy cultures, time off is a right granted to everyone. Well-being is a top priority, and vacations are encouraged to rejuvenate.
[00:09:22] Shashank Nigam:
I feel the purpose of this week off to let your guard down, is to try something new, which is energy-giving and not necessarily energy-draining. It is my responsibility to ensure our business survives. Our business can only survive and thrive if the employees are themselves thriving and thriving needs to be holistic, which can only come if they're taking regular time off. And I would rather have a happy employee working on a task that is slightly delayed than a completely exhausted employee delivering on time.
[00:09:56] Adam Grant (VO):
Let that sink in. It’s better to have a happy employee working on a task that is slightly delayed, than a completely exhausted employee delivering on time. Shashank can back that up with data.
[00:10:11] Shashank Nigam:
We did a statistical analysis after our first few week-offs, and we learned that productivity, creativity, and employee happiness were all up significantly. I, I used to have this guy. He, he loved sitting in numbers and being in Excel, and he comes back from his week off. I don't know what he did or what he didn't do that week, and here he is in client brainstorm sessions, giving the best ideas in the room, and I'm just looking at him. People were coming back and, and participating in meetings like they had not previously.
And we see this uptick in general in employee happiness. Like, you know, if I ask them, “How happy are you in the week off?” Uh, after the week off, you can see the smiles. You can see, oh, you know, I'm an eight out of 10 or nine out of 10 today rather than completely burnt out and exhausted.
[00:10:58] Adam Grant (VO):
Even if your workplace doesn’t have mandatory vacation time, there’s a lesson here for motivating people to take vacations. If you ask people why they don’t use all their paid time off, most will tell you they feel worried about falling behind and guilty about leaving extra work for their colleagues. In an experiment with thousands of employees at a professional services firm with my colleagues Reb Rebele and Grace Cormier, I found that asking people to reflect on the personal benefits of time off didn’t motivate them to use more vacation days.
What made a difference was inviting them to consider how their time off would benefit others. Just reflecting on how their family members and colleagues would appreciate them being well-rested and energized was enough to spur a 5 percent increase in vacation time. People started to realize that taking time off wasn’t a selfish decision– it was an investment in well-being that would have ripple effects on the people around them too. Those ripple effects were apparent to Shashank.
[00:11:57] Shashank Nigam:
And here at SimpliFlying, because different people are taking different times off at different times of the year, everyone is bringing back a different type of energy, a positively different type of energy, which is needed on a constant basis. Someone just had a week off, a week ago. And they come back fully rejuvenated and happy to continue to work. And that affects the mood of every single person in the team, which I do not think can be achieved if you're taking two to three weeks off a year, or you're taking six weeks off in the middle of the year.
[00:12:30] Adam Grant (VO):
Baiba, the project director at SimpliFlying, has noticed another benefit of the mandatory vacation policy: it gives people permission to take time off.
[00:12:38] Baiba Dreimane:
It's basically allowing myself to rest and not feel guilty about it because you, you see your, the rest of your colleagues on Instagram, like sharing things from work or whatever. If you are allowed to not care for a week, it's lovely, it's nice. Recommend it.
[00:12:52] Adam Grant (VO):
And she’s learned to detach completely during her week off.
[00:12:56] Baiba Dreimane:
I will just directly switch off all my notifications from Slack, from Gmail, and everything. It can wait until Monday. It's only a week.
[00:13:10] Adam Grant:
Do you think that this mandatory vacation policy–a week every, let's say, every eight weeks–is that feasible in an organization of a hundred people, a thousand people, a hundred thousand people?
[00:13:22] Shashank Nigam:
I truly believe this can be implemented by any company with less than a hundred employees, and you can implement this by staggering the week offs, ensuring that everyone has great visibility on who is off which week. I need to know seven weeks out when you will be off. So for example, for my staff, I know six months in advance when someone is gonna be off, the clients know months in advance and weeks in advance when someone will be off. So first, transparency is key. Second, you don't have to implement the model exactly like we are doing it. Please iterate based on your organization.
[00:13:56] Adam Grant:
I, I find your perspective so refreshing, except for one thing. There's one thing I just vehemently disagree with. I don't think this is limited to smaller organizations at all. I think in a company of a hundred thousand people or an organization of a million people, this, this is completely scalable.
Number one, the bigger your organization, the more people there are who have skills to backstop you or cover for you. Number two, as a manager, you could implement this in your team. Um, and obviously if you have interdependencies with other teams or with clients, uh, you need to sort that out, right? But within your span of control, this is something you could, know, you could implement in, in your own world. What I would say is this is an experiment worth running in any organization of any size.
[00:14:42] Shashank Nigam:
Absolutely. Um, and you will see impacts and results that I may not have seen. I have seen certain results in my employees and in my company, and larger organizations might see completely different results
[00:15:01] Adam Grant (VO):
Getting time off from work is important. But it’s not enough. We also need to be thoughtful about how we spend our time away to make sure we're getting the most out of our recovery. More on that, after the break.
[00:15:27] Adam Grant (VO):
Imagine your dream vacation. Maybe you're on a beach with a cool drink in your hand. Or perhaps, you're looking at beautiful architecture in a foreign city. The stress of your job and everyday life have melted away. And now it's Monday and you're back to work. Your dream vacation is over, and so is the lift you got from it.
[00:15:49] Sabine Sonnetag:
The benefits of the vacation fade out quite quickly.
[00:15:54] Adam Grant (VO):
This is Sabine Sonnetag. She's an organizational psychologist at the University of Mannheim in Germany, and she’s one of the world’s foremost experts on time off and recovery.
[00:16:03] Sabine Sonnetag:
So about two weeks after the end of the vacation, people are again at the level of their wellbeing as they were before the vacation. And this can even be stronger when they face heavy stressors when they come back from vacation.
[00:16:22] Adam Grant:
So is it, is it fair to say that a vacation is like a bandaid? It might temporarily stop the bleeding, but it doesn't heal the wound.
[00:16:30] Sabine Sonnetag:
It’s enough, just to stop the bleeding again and again.
[00:16:34] Adam Grant (VO):
Sabine has published landmark studies of job stress… and how we recover from it.
[00:16:39] Sabine Sonnetag:
So I'm very much interested in finding out what people can do to unwind, to recuperate, to feel better after a hard day.
[00:16:54] Dan Pelosi:
I find it just the thing that keeps me alive and keeps me happy.
[00:16:59] Adam Grant (VO):
This is Dan Pelosi. He has a background in marketing. But his real passion has always been cooking. It’s his favorite way to unwind.
[00:17:07] Dan Pelosi:
I might have like not, you know, had a great day at the gym or like, you know, jumped off my peloton like 10 minutes early. Those are not easy wins for me, making myself dinner or having my friends over, it's an easy win.
[00:17:22] Adam Grant (VO):
When you think about unwinding, cooking may not be the first thing that comes to mind. It might sound a little… vigorous… for something that’s supposed to help you relax. Maybe watching TV, taking a bath, or reading a book sounds more like your speed. And for good reason: that’s the familiar form of recovery, what we call relaxation. But Sabine finds that there are actually two very different kinds of recovery activities–both of which can have benefits.
[00:17:50] Sabine Sonnetag:
Relaxation is that what many people think when they think of recovery, unwinding, maybe doing nothing. Just relaxing. And so in terms of more physiological processes, it means a low sympathetic activation. So lower blood pressure, lower heart rate. But that is not the only avenue to, to becoming recovered.
[00:18:16] Adam Grant (VO):
The second kind of recovery activity is what Sabine calls a mastery experience.
[00:18:21] Sabine Sonnetag:
So that could be physical activities, physical exercise that is in most instances not immediately relaxing, but activating. Activities that are challenging. So for instance, learning a new language or having a, a hobby that, really asks, to step outside one's comfort zone. So, that can be experiences that are recovering as well.
[00:18:50] Adam Grant:
Part of what I loved about this distinction is, like, people have been giving me a hard time for failing to relax. But I feel like everything I enjoy doing with my time and what recharges me also, um, is, you know, is doing something that's mentally or physically stimulating. So playing word games, you know. Going, like, going on a, a run or a bike ride or playing a tennis match, um, and actually feeling exhausted afterward physically but feeling sort of for some reason mentally refreshed. How does this work?
[00:19:23] Sabine Sonnetag:
There are several processes in, in place. So one can be the, the physical exhaustion that results very often in a state of relaxation when the sort of undoing of the depletion kicks in.
[00:19:39] Adam Grant (VO):
In other words: when you complete a fun challenge, you feel joyfully exhausted. Maybe you’ve felt this when doing a crossword puzzle or an art project.
Part of the benefit of mastery activities is a sense of progress and confidence. But they also help us detach from work-related thoughts.
[00:19:57] Sabine Sonnetag:
So, these really challenging activities ask us for focusing and putting our attention on a very specific topic, a specific thing, activity, could be a specific person. And therefore our thoughts are not distracted but really focused, and that can provide some, some aspect of, of recovery.
[00:20:22] Adam Grant:
I think you're helping me justify my preference for mastery over relaxation.
[00:20:27] Sabine Sonnetag:
Yep. Happy to do so.
[00:20:30] Adam Grant (VO):
Take cooking. Your mind doesn’t wander to your job because you’re focused on the recipe. You’re immersed in preparing the ingredients and assembling the dish. Maybe even getting creative and adding your own flair. Which Dan has enjoyed doing for a long time.
[00:20:44] Dan Pelosi:
I mean, it started day one. I was born into a, an Italian American and Portuguese American family, so it was sort of my birthright. My mother, uh, tells stories of having me on the counter as a baby, sort of, you know, hanging out with her while she cooked ... And then as I grew, I would be helping her cook. ... And I was sort of the official, the official taste tester. And I remember my grandfather saying, “Do you think the marinara is done?” And I would always say no, because I didn't wanna stop tasting it.
[00:21:12] Adam Grant (VO):
Each time he experiments with a recipe, he gains a skill and accomplishes something new. That expands his sense of mastery.
[00:21:19] Dan Pelosi:
Being in the kitchen and cooking is like, kind of an easy win. Like, I think that's why it's relaxing to me. Like, I'm pretty much like never bummed out or disappointed with what I make because I’m like, “This is like a fun space for me.” It’s like a safe space. The winds are easy for me in the kitchen. And for me, it’s never about the result, to me. Like, what do I learn from the result?
[00:21:39] Adam Grant:
I think it's similar to why so many people choose a game like Wordle as their, you know, as kind of their mini mastery hobby.
[00:21:47] Dan Pelosi:
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Mine just results in something edible.
[00:21:53] Adam Grant (VO):
So how do you know whether to aim for relaxation or mastery?
[00:21:58] Sabine Sonnetag:
Go for where the greatest need is. And or explore doing this one of the experiences or, or the others. If we look in terms of outcomes, I mean they have many overlapping consequences, but the most striking difference is that relaxation results more in positive, affected states that are calm, that are quiet, that are serene. Whereas mastery results in more activated positive states. So being excited, being alert, being active, and so on. And so therefore, in the evening it could sometimes be better to strive for relaxation because that should help to sleep better. Whereas in the morning if it's possible, it's better to do something that stimulates and that results in positive, effective states and not necessarily in calmness and serenity.
[00:22:59] Adam Grant (VO):
Sabine’s research applies not only to evenings and weekends, but ALSO to full-blown vacations. Depending on the kind of relief you need, you might opt for a relaxing beach vacation or a mountain climbing expedition — and feel rejuvenated either way.
Of course, it can be hard to find time during the work week for full recovery. So some researchers recommend treating weekends like vacations.
Dan remembers one particular weekend like that.
After a few stressful weeks, he planned a little vacation with his friends out to Fire Island in New York. But instead of lounging by the pool or dipping in the ocean, Dan found himself relaxing by going to the kitchen.
[00:23:38] Dan Pelosi:
I was at probably my peak of stress and being overworked. And it just was, it’s just so beautiful and getting into my groove, and handling beautiful produce, firing the grill, making a beautiful meal. Um… It just is the thing that brings me back to life. It feels like I have air around my thoughts. Like I have that space. I have room to sort of breathe in my mind so I can really focus on that task in front of me. And so therapeutic because I'm focused on one singular task and I'm really driven by the payoff, which is putting the food on the table, um, saying “Let's eat,” and letting everyone dive in. And that to me is just the best.
[00:24:25] Adam Grant (VO):
When COVID hit, Dan’s go-to method of relaxing resulted in something unexpected.
[00:24:30] Dan Pelosi:
I started just basically creating teachable content on my Instagram, and suddenly the followers just sort of started flowing in. And every day I was just like, here's how you make tuna. Here's how I make pizza. Like, here's the five things I keep on my counter. Here's what's in my pantry. And that allowed me to really take off and realize, like, Wow. This weekend hobby is actually something that I can use to help people during this global pandemic. And then from there, it’s just been sort of like the first year I worked my job at Ann Taylor, at the, the brands I was working at. And I built GrossyPelosi and it was the hardest I've ever worked in my whole life. But it was the most joyful, amazing thing. It kind of got me through the pandemic.
[00:25:13] Adam Grant (VO):
He ended up gaining so much mastery in cooking that he left the marketing world behind. He’s now a full-time recipe creator. As GrossyPelosi, he’s one of Instagram’s most beloved recipe developers and lifestyle creators. He’s a regular on Good Morning America and he has a new cookbook called Let’s Eat. Dan’s idea of relaxing has brought his fans a lot of joy. And now that cooking has become Dan’s job… he might need a new mastery activity to recuperate.
Whichever hobbies energize you, we need to reimagine our workplaces to make space for them. I hate it when leaders say “I hope you get to recharge!” Breaks shouldn’t be a time to recharge – they should be a time to rejoice. If work is exhausting people to the point that they’re using their time off to recover, you might have a burnout culture. A healthy organization doesn’t leave people drained in the first place. Bad bosses see breaks as a lack of dedication to work. Good bosses recognize breaks as a source of energy for work, so they’re happy to grant time off.
But great bosses see breaks as a right, not a reward—they care about your life beyond work. So they insist on time off. I’m my own boss. So what did I do during a recent long weekend? I put the finishing touches on this episode. Do what I say, not what I do. But not long before that, I took our teenager to a conference, and she got to plan a few days of vacation in Norway. We hiked up a mountain overlooking a fjord and went whitewater rafting. Out of the 5 whitewater levels, she picked class 4 – she was all about mastery. As for me…
[00:27:02] Adam’s Daughter (VO):
I was the only one who fell out of the raft.
[00:27:19] Adam Grant (VO):
Next week on WorkLife…
[00:27:21] Marina Nitze:
And so, I would rather people learn how to effectively hack a bureaucracy so that they don’t actually make the bureaucracy worse.
[00:27:27] Adam Grant (VO):
This episode was produced by Courtney Guarino. Our team includes Daphne Chen, Constanza Gallardo, Dan O'Donnell, Gretta Cohn, Grace Rubenstein, Daniella Balarezo, Ban Ban Cheng, Michelle Quint, Alejandra Salazar, and Roxanne Hai-Lash. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Our show is mixed by Ben Chesneau. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
Special thanks to our sponsors, UKG and Destination Canada.
For their research, gratitude to the following lead authors:
* On paid time off and vacations: Jessica de Bloom, Sabine Geurts, Jana Kühnel, Charlotte Fritz, and Cassie Mogilner Jones
* On recovery, Bonnie Hayden Cheng and Christina Guthier
* On sabbaticals and extended leaves: Dalia Etzion, Kira Schabram, Oranit Davidson, Dov Eden, and DJ DiDonna
[00:20:21] Adam’s Daughter:
[00:28:22] Adam Grant:
The laughing is bad? That’s okay.
[00:28:24] Adam’s Daughter:
[00:28:24] Adam Grant:
We’re gonna have to continue my laugh.
[00:28:25] Adam’s Daughter:
No, ‘cause it sounds fake, because I know what your laugh sounds like.
[00:28:28] Adam Grant:
[00:28:29] Adam’s Daughter:
It’s usually pronounced, like “Oh ho ho ho!”