Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

How taking all your holiday allowance can make you a better employee – and a better person


Did you take all your holiday allowance last year?


You’re not alone. One survey discovered that the average UK employee ends up wasting almost a quarter of their total annual leave.

That means with a month of annual leave allowance, you’re working an extra week.

For nothing.

The survey continued, saying that only 50% of employees used their full annual leave allowance last year. And that 44% of employees said they work even whilst on holiday.

But are holidays important? Why is this an issue at all? In this difficult economic climate isn’t it better to show our boss we are so busy and important that it’s practically impossible for us to take time off?

Well, no.

One of the earliest industrial giants to realise that productivity and hours worked were curvilinear and not linear was Henry Ford, who, in the early 20th century, reduced the working week of his employees from 6 days to 5, and from 48 hours to 40. But he didn’t do this on a whim, but rather based on many years of human efficiency experiments.

As this widely-quoted set of productivity experiments reminds us, it has been demonstrated that with a less-than-40-hour-week people aren’t productive enough, whilst a greater-than-60-hour-week gives a small productivity boost – but only for 3-4 weeks, after which the productivity drops sharply and is even less than with a 40 hour week.

Fascinatingly, some of these experiments are in fact the basis of the 40 hour work week (discovered to be optimum: not too much, not too little).  Not a result of liberalism, but ‘hard-headed capitalism’.

But, I hear you cry, some of these experiments were nearly 100 years ago! Surely they don’t apply to knowledge workers.

That’s true.

In fact, more recent studies suggest that performance for knowledge workers declines after only 35 hours, not 40. Creativity and problem solving decreases faster with fatigue than manual labour does. Lack of sleep is especially detrimental for knowledge workers.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of reasons to take your holiday. It took me a few years of working to realise exactly how important taking my holidays were, but once I did, I became a passionate advocate not only for myself, but for my team.

Taking your holiday allowance, and giving yourself some ‘fallow’ time is a critical part of self-care, of taking care of yourself

Here then, are a wealth of reasons to convince you to take your holidays this year.

1. Stave off chronic stress

Stress and anxiety are the most common reasons for long-term sick leave, and long working hours with little or no break is a high-risk scenario for this kind of burnout or ill health.

Without more balance in your lifestyle, balance that should include holiday breaks, employees put themselves at risk of coming to an unwanted full stop at work, and taking a long break of sick leave that a couple of weeks from your holiday allowance could have helped to prevent.

2. Connect with others

Relationships are important in terms of our wellbeing. The more hours you work, the less time you have to nurture these relationships – and solid relationships can help you live longer, deal with stress, and be healthier.

Spending time with those you love whilst on holiday will help strengthen the bonds of your relationships through shared experiences. Plus the more relaxed ‘post-holiday you’ is likely to be able to respond to relationship difficulties more easily and effectively, and even be less prone to irritation – essentially, you’re probably a nicer person once you’ve had a holiday.

3. Fill your brain

Most of us have a routine while we’re at work. We see the same people, work on similar tasks or work in the same buildings. Maybe we even eat the same foods.

In order to keep your dendrites bushy – that is, build more connections in your brain, keeping it active, healthy, and slowing the ageing process – we need to challenge ourselves to have new experiences, and learn new skills. This can also help us with problem-solving – the more analogies and concepts we have to fall back on, the more we can see issues or problems in new ways.

On holiday we see new people, in new places, in new ways, and can build new connections in our brain by activities that vary from a cooking class to a walk on the beach at sunset. Going on holiday can be both inspiring and motivating.

(For more ideas on what to do while you’re on holiday, see my beautiful and lively (free) PDF ‘101 Ideas to Boost Your Creativity, Have Fun and Play!’)

4. Be less boring

Our holidays bring us new perspectives, and new topics to talk about. Rather than discussing the same three things with your partner or work colleagues, a holiday break in a new country or even another town can help you to become multifaceted, discovering new passions or enthusiasms.

Moreover, taking time to feed these enthusiasms (such as indulging a love of history by taking a tour of Venice) can give you outlets outside of work, and mental or emotional breaks from stressful situations.

5. Get more sleep

Sleep is one of the most underrated and simple tools for increasing productivity. Richard Wiseman’s excellent book, Night Watch, shows us the less sleep you have, the more error prone you are likely to be, and the more you limit your ability to organise and process information and perform at your optimum level. A holiday gives us the opportunity to wipe out the ‘sleep debt’ that we have probably accumulated by working long hours without breaks.

6. Discover yourself

Who are you?

What are you without work?

Taking your holiday allowance and going on vacation enables you to prepare for times in your life when work isn’t part of your identity – whether that’s due to redundancy, maternity or paternity leave, or retirement. If you have a well-rounded identity before these situations occur, you’re likely to deal with them more effectively.

7. Take a helicopter view

Are you in the right company/role? Do you ever get a chance to sit back and see the wood for the trees? Do you have a sneaking feeling that your job’s not very fulfilling, but you’re always too busy to explore other options?

I know many people like this, and these are also the people least likely to take their holidays – perhaps because they’re afraid of what they might find when they do.

Taking time off gives you the opportunity for a fresh perspective, and to consider the long term – the helicopter – view, rather than being caught up in the daily grind of crises and emergencies.

Who knows what you’ll discover about yourself…


What have you got planned for your next holiday? Share it in the comments below!



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Grace Bryant December 22, 2014, 6:34 am

    I am doing nothing this holiday season in a place far away from most people I know! Thanks for validating my choices to take the time for self-care and self-love. My holiday plans include going to the sauna, taking time to meet new people in coffee shops, and perhaps taking in a movie by myself. And lots of sleep! May you take the time to love yourself this year, too!

    • Ellen December 23, 2014, 4:37 am

      Thanks Grace, that’s mostly how I am also spending the holiday season this year! Definitely on the sleep…Yes, sometimes we forget in the holidays that we do need to take a little care of ourself as well as others. Wishing you a wonderful holidays!

  • Franca January 1, 2015, 10:15 pm

    I totally agree with you Ellen, when I had a full time job taking my holidays was the best and I’ve never left any days to spare, I used them all :)
    Franca recently posted…A Vegan View of Christmas in PugliaMy Profile

    • Ellen January 3, 2015, 6:53 am

      Thanks Franca, and well done on taking them, so few people do! I hope you still have some nice holidays planned for 2015 :-) x

  • elle June 27, 2016, 9:00 pm

    I think it’s even worse for those who work from home or run their own businesses Ellen. Chances of them taking time away is even less likely. Yet, clearly, as you point out it’s such a necessary part of self-care. Never mind the fact that life has to have a modicum of fun…
    elle recently posted…3 Steps To Double Your Productivity and Supercharge Your CareerMy Profile

    • Ellen June 28, 2016, 8:14 am

      I would totally agree Elle – I was quite good at taking my holiday when I was in a FT job, but now the line is so much more blurry, I rarely have a whole day away from the laptop. It’s something I keep an eye on though! And my life is so much more flexible, there are plenty of long lunches and the odd day time massage, so I think it works out overall…

  • Debbie L Hampton June 27, 2016, 10:09 pm

    Very enlightening post with good reasons to take your holiday time. Of course, I like the “fill your brain” reason the best. Our brain thrives on and needs new environments and stimulation.

    I don’t think I’ll ever need convincing though to take all my downtime! :)
    Debbie L Hampton recently posted…The Benefits Of Self-Compassion And How To Get MoreMy Profile

    • Ellen June 28, 2016, 8:15 am

      Thanks Debbie, and glad you’re setting a good example for us all!

  • Sandra Pawula June 29, 2016, 1:35 am

    This is a good reminder for me, Ellen! Since we’ve lived in Hawaii, we’ve rarely taken vacations. But I think we still really need them as all your points suggest!
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…Is It Time to Create a Culture of Care?My Profile

    • Ellen June 30, 2016, 1:42 am

      Yes, even if it’s a vacation at home – I think there’s something about marking the time and making it ‘official’ that’s really important. I can imagine a vacation at home in Hawaii might be very nice indeed :-)

  • Paige Burkes June 30, 2016, 11:18 pm

    Since I live in the woods, in a place where other people go to get away, I feel like a stay-cation is the way to go. Unfortunately, I end up working through my stay-cations since I’m surrounded by work and chores when I’m at home. The rare times when I feel like I can truly rest are when the internet or electricity go out for extended periods of time.

    Technology is wonderful in so many ways. Unfortunately, it also makes working all the time too easy. Thanks for the reminder to get away!
    Paige Burkes recently posted…How To Get Focused in Your Next Job SearchMy Profile

    • Ellen July 5, 2016, 9:06 am

      Thanks Paige, and as I live in the beautiful Chiang Mai, Thailand, I know exactly what you mean. It can be truly hard to have a tech sabbatical, but I think the rewards are worth it. Good luck!