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It always pays to take sabbaticals and vacations

Rest really does improve performance, mainly by nipping

Rest really does improve performance, mainly by nipping burnout in the bud. Credit: Getty Images / Matteo Colombo

No sooner had Citigroup announced its new sabbatical policy — 12 weeks at 25% pay for employees who'd been at the bank at least five years — than the debate erupted: In the highly competitive world of finance, would it be a career-killer to take advantage of that kind of deal?

I'm not surprised some people asked. In 2018, the average American full-time employee earned 23 paid days off a year, but only used 17 of them, according to a study funded by the nonprofit U.S. Travel Association using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis.

That's six days of PTO left on the table — the equivalent of handing a week's salary back to your employer. When you consider that the United States has the rich world's stingiest vacation policies, this becomes even more depressing.

Other forms of paid leave — like family leave — also see a significant number of people leaving time on the table. Especially men. Clearly, Americans think they can't afford to take time off, even when their companies are paying them to take it.

But in many years of looking, I've seen no data to suggest that such fears are justified. Some research on Americans who take their vacation time, for example, shows that they are more likely to get a raise or promotion — not less. Admittedly, this finding also comes from the USTA study, and it only shows correlation, not causation. Maybe only geniuses feel entitled to take all their vacation time. Nonetheless, it should help assuage the fear that taking time off might hurt your career.

Nor will logging longer hours help you. In fact, another study — this one an academic, peer-reviewed one — found that managers couldn't tell the difference between those who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who were only faking it.

Rest really does improve performance, mainly by nipping burnout in the bud. It's been well documented that overwork has cognitive, physical and interpersonal costs, which can easily translate into lost productivity.

Cynics tend to think that paid time off is something companies offer to attract talent, and then punish employees for actually using. But in the case of Citi's offer, I think it pays to take the company at its word: "People just sometimes need a break."

Taking a break might even remind your colleagues how much value you contribute. I know that's my reaction to any coworker returning from a break, whether a short or long one: Thank goodness you're back! This place has been a mess without you!

OK, I may have persuaded you to take your vacation time before it evaporates. But what about a longer break, like a 12-week sabbatical?

We can extrapolate a bit here from data on parental leaves. Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology that looked at longer leaves — those lasting a year or more, as some new parents in Canada and Europe can command —found that being out of the office for that length of time really can cost you. Workers might miss career opportunities; their industry knowledge might erode. But leaves that last six months or less do not show a negative impact on a person's career.

Parenthood does often hurt women's careers, but that's not because of maternity leave, which in the U.S. tends to be unpaid and short. It's because employers unfairly perceive mothers as less competent and committed. To pick just one of several studies documenting this, research led by Shelley Correll showed that mothers were offered $11,000 less in salary, 79% less likely to be hired, and 100% less likely to be promoted than women whose parental status was unknown.

Men's careers can be hurt by taking even short paternity leaves, though that may be slowly starting to change. (Bias against fathers is one of the fastest-growing areas of employment discrimination.) But there's no evidence that taking leave for other reasons — surfing in Maui, training for a marathon, riding your motorcycle up the California coast — costs men one whit.

This is not to say there are never tradeoffs between time and money. But at least one study, by Ashley Whillans, Elizabeth Dunn and their collaborators, finds that people who prioritized time over money reported feeling happier one year after being surveyed, and that prioritizing time over money leads to stronger social connection. That's why one of the best ways we can spend our money is to buy ourselves more time.

So why not buy yourself 12 weeks?

Suppose some amazing opportunity comes up at work and you're not there to seize it. All I can say is that no one can be everywhere all the time, and many work opportunities come around more than once. But the chance to take a sabbatical, even one that's only partly paid? That could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And there are lots of reasons to take a break in the middle of your career, rather than grinding it out until retirement.

Think about it this way: Money is the ultimate renewable resource. You can always earn more of it. But time is fleeting and finite. Once it's gone, it's gone.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron's, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review.