As a kid, there were few sounds that were sweeter to me than those two wonderful words: Snow day! Now that I’m a grown-up, the pure joy of an unexpected snow day has been mixed with some of the more mundane concerns – will we lose power, do we need to rush to the store for milk, are the kids going to go completely stir-crazy…. But I have to admit that there’s still something wonderful about waking up and realizing that, for the next 24 hours, we will be alone in our own quiet, snowy world.
But while students (and workers) may delight in a snow day, employers often bemoan the supposed “loss of productivity” that a weather-related closure can cause. Even before the first snowflake has fallen, we start hearing economic projections of the billions in losses that a snow day can cause. So much for holding on to our childlike wonder.
But the problem with these economic projections is that they often simply divide the predicted productivity of that day by the number of workers who will be staying at home. That calculation fails to take into account all kinds of important factors. A snow day means days off for some workers, but particularly productive days for others (like the snow plow drivers I watched out my window all day Tuesday). And although snow days can cause certain businesses (like restaurants) to close their doors and lose a day of profits, those of us who aren’t at work may be stimulating the economy in other ways – say by online shopping, or renting movies on Amazon Prime.
But perhaps most importantly, these calculations of lost productivity treat workers as machines. They don’t take into account the obvious truth that a day of rest can often be a wonderful thing for the mind and soul – and, consequently, for productivity. We return from an unexpected snow day rejuvenated and motivated to work harder and more efficiently. I often look back on a week that was cut short by a snow day and realize that I probably accomplished everything I’d wanted to accomplish in four days instead of five.
The same is true for paid vacations. It’s easy to think that by taking vacation time, we are slacking off, falling behind, being unproductive. But in fact, research has shown that the opposite is true. Vacations increase worker satisfaction, loyalty, and productivity, while vacation-deprivation increases worker mistakes and resentment.
Breaks on a small scale can have the same positive effect. Businesses often assume that whenever workers take a break during the workday– whether it’s to say hi to a coworker, or watch a cat video online, or just daydream for a few minutes – those breaks inevitably mean lost productivity. One study concluded that “Internet misuse” costs U.S. companies more than $178 billion annually in lost productivity.
But again, those figures incorrectly assume that people can work at a steady pace, hour after hour, with no losses in efficiency or performance. In fact, research has shown that taking regular breaks can actually increase productivity. For example, in one study, workers who received alerts to take short breaks throughout the day were found to be 13 percent more accurate on average in their work than coworkers who were not reminded to take periodic rest periods. Another study found that workers who spent some time online during the workday (up to 20% of their total work hours) were actually 9% more productive than coworkers who resisted the Internet altogether.
All this makes me realize that kids have it right. Just like the book says, “All I really need to know, I learned in kindergarten.” When we get a snow day, we should play hard, and we’ll all be the more ready to work hard the next day.