Americans are terrible at taking vacations, and that’s a shame, because they aren’t helping their companies or themselves. People are just less productive in summer, for a whole host of reasons. So you might as well hang out at the beach anyway.
Americans wasted a record-setting 658 million vacation days in 2015, left on the table by 55% of workers, according to Project: Time Off’s new report, The State of American Vacation. The group says Americans’ vacation habits are amid a decades-long decline in usage. A pile of other past studies make this same point. The average American gives $500 of free labor to their employers every year; the average millennial works during vacation, with 1-in-4 working every single vacation day.
All this lack of sun isn’t really doing anyone any favors. Because the truth is summer slowdowns are real, and you probably aren’t getting much done anyway. Here are seven reasons why you, and everyone else, really is less productive in summer.
1. The Weather (Duh!)
As a writer, I loved living in Seattle. Yes, because it rained all the time. It’s pretty easy to commit yourself to sticking your face in a computer at a coffee shop when it’s gray and misty outside. When it’s beautiful and sunny? Well, it’s darn near impossible.
That’s not made up. One study of the Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey found that, on rainy days, men spent, on average, thirty more minutes at work than they did on similarly sunny days.
It should be obvious that distraction is the enemy of productivity. And nothing is more distracting than looking outside a window to see sun you aren’t enjoying. Well, there might be one thing more distracting: Seeing pictures of other people enjoying the sun online.
We know that social media sites like Facebook can lead to a lot of wasted time at the office. But in summer, it can do lead to something potentially more problematic.
When the New Yorker covered why summer makes us lazy, it highlighted a Harvard study that found looking at pictures of people sailing or eating outside made them focus less at work.
“Instead of focusing on their work, they focused on what they’d rather be doing,” the New Yorker proclaimed. “The mere thought of pleasant alternatives made people concentrate less.”
And these were random pictures of people the subjects didn’t’ know. Imagine how much stronger the effect is when your old college buddy is at Folly Beach in North Carolina and you are sitting in front of Microsoft Outlook. (Thanks a lot, Tim).
3. It’s HOT
Your brain slows down when it’s hot and humid. In fact, heat lowers skepticism, making people more pliable, according to one study. Who wants employees with lower levels of skepticism making decisions? Meanwhile, humidity makes people sleepy and lose concentration. Again, that’s a terrible time to work.
4. It’s COLD
Oh, the irony. People who are cold also lose concentration, and given the prevalence of thermostat wars in most buildings, this can be a real problem. A Cornell University study that took place in an insurance office found that when temperatures were low, employees committed 44% more typing errors than when the office was a warm 77 degrees. The report said that employers also experienced a 10% drop in productivity when workers are freezing thanks to hyperactive AC. When you are cold, you can’t think.
5. It’s the Beginning of the (Fiscal) Year
Many companies go through a mad rush to finish projects as June 30 approaches. Then, in July, new planning begins. That has traditionally made July a time where many workers relax a bit from the end-of-year crunch, and also wait for new marching orders. Of course, this only applies to firms with tax years that span July 1 to June 30. But even if your firm interacts with a firm that uses a fiscal year, this can impact you. Which leads to the next point…
6. Everybody Else Is on Vacation
It’s really hard to get things done when nobody else is around. Try scheduling a meeting in Germany on a Friday afternoon — or for that matter on a summer Friday in New York City — and you’ll see what I mean. This shows the wisdom of August holidays that are adopted to a greater or lesser degree around Europe. When everyone agrees to take off at the same time, there’s a lot less frustration about the inability to get things done. And that leads to the final, contentious point about summer slowdowns …
7. The Summer Hours …?
A small number of companies in select industries — like New York publishing houses — close their offices on Friday afternoons in the summer. Born of tradition, workers tend to love these policies, as they can have a chance to beat the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic on their way to the beach. But they are not without controversy. Obviously, no-Friday-afternoons mean less productivity, right? That’s what the firm Captivate says it found when it surveyed summer hour workers. In fact, early Fridays make workers stressed out, the firm says – because they have to work that much harder earlier in the week. Some 23% of those who make up for fewer Friday hours by working more hours from Monday to Thursday report that their stress levels increase, according to Captivate.
“On the face of it, summer hours probably seem like a terrific idea and are welcome by all,” Mike DiFranza, president of Captivate Network, which manages office elevator displays, said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the impact is almost uniformly negative. Given the state of the economy and the unease felt by many workers, perhaps it’s time to reconsider these types of policies.”
Not everyone agrees.
Plenty of studies separate “hours worked” and productivity. The OECD found that workers in Greece clock 2,034 hours a year versus 1,397 in Germany, for example, but Germans’ productivity is 70% higher. So giving people a couple of free hours on a Friday just makes them that much more focused during the week, this line of thinking argues. Meanwhile, possible woe to the firm that is inflexible on summer Fridays. In a study that directly contradicts the Captivate one, a firm named Workplace Options found more than half of workers say there is no summer slowdown, but young employees look for perks like flexible summer schedules, that let them get away early when they have to.
So, theoretically, firms that don’t allow flex time – that is, beat the traffic to the beach time – could find their best workers heading out the door permanently. (If you are looking to change jobs, you may want to check your credit since some employers pull a version of your credit report as part of their application process. You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and see a free credit report summary each month on Credit.com. And you go here to learn how to dispute any errors you may find on your credit reports.)
In any event, it can be a good idea to take your vacation days in the summer. Enjoy the sun. The week after Labor Day is going to be frantic, whether you take vacation or not, so you might as well make the best of it.
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Image: Ryerson Clark