Elon Musk is notoriously hard working. The man runs two successful companies in Tesla Motors and SpaceX and has a hand in several other ventures like Neuralink and the Boring Company. He's been known to sleep in his office at Tesla and isn't shy about admitting when he's feeling overworked. 

Clearly, this sounds like a man who could use a vacation, but he's actually allergic to the concept. Author Ashlee Vance notes in his biography on Musk, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future that he has even gone so far as to say that "vacation will kill you." 

He was being a little tongue in check in that last moment, referring to a 2000 trip in which he contracted a severe form of malaria, but the habitual entrepreneur does practice what he jokes by almost never taking any time off. 

By some accounts, Musk has only attempted to take a week off a few times since 2003. During his second attempt at a vacation, a SpaceX rocket exploded and he partially blamed his absence for the mishap.

We could play armchair psychologist about Musk's workaholic tendencies for quite some time, but with the holidays upon us, I'm more interested in debunking the unhealthy and dangerous notion that humans don't need time off. 

When Musk showed a journalist where he was sleeping in his office at Tesla, Arianna Huffington published an open letter to the CEO, imploring him to be a role model and citing research that skimping on sleep can be just as much of an impairment as drinking to the point of being tipsy. That's not exactly the condition you want your employees working under, and it's certainly not the right frame of mind for leaders to be making decisions, as some of Musk's bizarre tweets have demonstrated. 

New research published in Nature Human Behaviour by UC Berkeley scientists has found that sleep is our bodies' natural means of cleansing our brains of stress and anxiety that can impair not only our health, but our judgment.

Take the time (off) to be more productive.

I once worked for someone at a very small organization who took Musk's approach to vacations. He went a decade without time off and was proud of his work ethic and 20-hour days. My right to vacation time was clearly laid out in my contract, but there was subtle and sometimes even overt pressure not to take that time. When I forced the issue, his veiled threats turned out to be bluffs, but I still remember it as by far the most stressful work environment I've encountered.

As for that boss, he was eventually forced to take his own vacation time, after he had a heart attack at a very young age. 

Richard Branson, founder of his own commercial space company Virgin Galactic, has a very different attitude from Musk and my former boss about time off, calling vacation policies at American companies "a disgrace."

Plenty of research backs up the value of vacation. A study from the Harvard Business Review, U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off finds, perhaps counterintuitively, that people who take more of their vacation days are more likely to receive a raise or bonus.

Research from the American Psychological Association has also found that when employees take vacations and work in a company where taking time is encouraged, they are more productive and less-likely to burn out over the long haul. 

Bottom line, we need time off. The lack of vacation is actually what's more likely to kill us. But if you really can't get away, you can at least work like you're on vacation to be more productive and allow yourself to get more sleep, whether you're a billionaire running two successful and revolutionary companies or you're not quite there just yet. 

Published on: Dec 19, 2019
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