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Neuroscience Expert Says Leaders Should Encourage Employees To Take Time Off

If your employees aren’t taking their vacation time, it’s a problem. Neuroscience expert Michael E. Frisina explains how to change that—and why.

Vacations matter. They reduce stress; help prevent burnout; and keep people healthier, happier, more motivated—and yes—more productive. Research on the positive health benefits and increased performance from regular paid time off (PTO) practices is indisputable.

What this means for leaders is clear: Encouraging people to take their vacations isn’t only in their best interest, it’s in ours, too. It seems like a no-brainer. Yet a recent Pew Research study shows that nearly half of employees don’t take the paid time off (PTO) that’s coming to them. What’s a leader to do?

Neuroscience expert Michael E. Frisina, PhD, says the answer is two-pronged: One, we must create a vacation-friendly culture, one that encourages (perhaps even insists on) employees taking regular time off. Two, we need to set them up for vacations that are truly rejuvenating.

“Going on vacation can feel like a struggle,” admits Frisina, who, along with Robert Frisina, wrote Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence. “The two weeks leading up to it are stressful, as you work feverishly to get everything done. The two weeks after are just as bad as you try to catch back up.

“When you do leave, it takes the first couple of days to decompress,” he adds. “Then, you have one or two good days before you start dreading going back. By the time you return, it feels like you haven’t had a vacation at all. No wonder people start to think, It’s just not worth it.”


Mandatory Time Off and Upper Brain Mode

Not only should employers consider a mandatory time off policy, Frisina says we need to learn how to send people out the door in what he calls upper-brain mode.

Simply put, when we’re in our upper brain, we’re in a state of positivity, openness, engagement, and creativity. By contrast, when we’re in our lower brain, we’re stressed, anxious, and frustrated. It’s a bad feeling—one that follows us to our destination and ruins everyone’s good time (no one enjoys being on vacation with a family member who’s uptight and snappy).

Frisina shares a few brain-science-backed tips to set employees up for a successful vacation:


Leaders: set the right example.

Leaders who rarely (or never) take time off send a veiled message that subordinates shouldn’t do so either. It’s important to take your own vacations and speak positively about the benefits of getting away.


Consider making PTO a reportable metric.

This is another good way to “walk the talk.” We can’t change what we don’t manage, and we can’t manage what we don’t know. “Making PTO a management metric like absenteeism and tardiness lets people know that management takes it seriously,” says Frisina. “I did this as a military commander. Failing to take PTO was viewed as bad leadership, not a badge of honor.”


Communicate PTO with positivity and enthusiasm.

Ask questions about the person’s plans (if they seem open to sharing details) and express how excited you are that they’re taking the opportunity to unplug. This can help allay any guilty feelings on their part about taking time off, as well as hidden suspicion that you secretly resent their being gone. “By being positive about the vacation, you help the employee reframe it from ‘a source of stress’ to ‘a reason for gratitude,’” notes Frisina. “When people are in a state of gratitude, it gets the focus off the fear that they’re letting their teammates down or that something might go wrong.”


Ask what they’re most worried about.

Employees may harbor fears that they won’t get everything done, that a client or project will suffer in their absence, or that coworkers will be overburdened. This gives you a chance to find solutions together, and shifts them away from skeptical, confusing, fear-provoking “what if” thinking and into productive, energized action.


Spell out pre-vacation priorities…

An out-of-control to-do list plunges people into their lower brain and confuses activity with progress. Help them figure out the most important assigned projects and narrow down the list to a reasonable number for the time frame. Then prioritize from “most important” to “least important.”

“Vagueness and open-endedness are anxiety-producing,” says Frisina. “Clarity is energizing. When the employee knows exactly what they’re supposed to do, you’ll get far better results and give them the satisfaction of leaving for their trip having done the most important projects.”


Declutter the pre-PTO to-do list.

It’s never a good idea to overwork people with non-essential objectives and crisis management events, but right before vacation, it’s especially damaging. Once you’ve magnified what’s important (previous tip), remove what’s not. Act as a shield to keep low-value objectives out of their way. “The less distracting ‘noise’ the employee must field, the more likely they are to be focused, engaged, and productive,” says Frisina. “It greatly improves the odds that they’ll get done what they need to get done before they leave.”


Emphasize what’s going well.

This is a staple of Frisina’s advice. He advocates starting and ending meetings with “wins” and positive feedback. It gets everyone into their upper brain right away, then sends them off feeling confident and excited for the next step. And he says the same principle applies to vacation.

“Before the employee leaves, you might say, ‘Thank you for knocking those PowerPoint slides out of the park; you set us up to have a great presentation while you’re gone,’” advises Frisina. “This kind of gives them permission to stop worrying and have fun. And since they feel good about themselves and their work, they won’t dread coming back.”

Incidentally…if employees seem perpetually reluctant to take paid time off, or come back decidedly un-rejuvenated, it might signal a bigger problem with your company’s leadership style.


“Today’s talent expects caring leader relationships and a healthy work/life balance,” says Frisina. “It’s not enough for leaders to say, ‘We want you to take your vacations.’ They need to actually mean it. And that requires them to be the kind of leader who genuinely cares about keeping people in their upper brain—not just at vacation time, but always.”


Michael E. Frisina, PhD, has authored more than 50 papers and published articles on leadership and organizational effectiveness. He is a contributing author to the Borden Institute’s highly acclaimed textbook series on military medicine. He is a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center in New York, a visiting fellow in medical humanities at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and a John C. Maxwell Top 100 Transformational Leader.


Robert W. Frisina, MA, is a principal in the Frisina Group and executive director at the Center for Influential Leadership, with primary responsibility for program development and research in leadership effectiveness and organizational development. He is a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and served as a civil affairs specialist with the Second Brigade Combat Team in the 101st Airborne Division in southern Afghanistan. 


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