Workers Have Trouble Unplugging While on PTO

Staff shortages, falling behind cited

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek July 25, 2022
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​Employees in the U.S. are notorious for not taking their allotted, employer-paid vacation time. Even when they do take time off, they often use some of that time to work and check e-mail.

Fifty-four percent of U.S. professionals said they are unable to unplug from work or do not believe they can fully do so while on paid time off (PTO), according to a survey of 20,297 respondents conducted in June for Glassdoor.

A similar survey of 336 professionals by Korn Ferry found that 37 percent said they check in with the office multiple times a day. Only 8 percent said they never connect with work while on vacation.

More than half (58 percent) said being away from the office stresses them out more this year than previously, according to Korn Ferry. The main reason, cited by 47 percent of respondents, is that staff shortages are leaving them with too much work. Half (50 percent) of professionals said they have cut short or canceled a vacation due to work demands.

While most professionals cannot or do not believe they can fully unplug from work, Glassdoor's survey found differences based on employee demographics.

Survey: Unplugging from Work Difficult for Some Employees

Older employees have a tough time disconnecting from their jobs while on vacation.

  • Of all employees, 54 percent don’t think they can fully unplug from work while on paid time off.
  • Of workers ages 45 or older, 65 percent of workers don’t think they can fully unplug from work while on paid time off.



Workers ages 45 and older have the most difficulty unplugging while on vacation, according to Glassdoor: 65 percent said they can't or don't believe they can fully disconnect from work while on paid time off. Forty-seven percent of professionals ages 21 to 25 shared this sentiment.

One reason may be older workers are more likely to be further along in their careers in roles requiring more responsibility and managerial oversight—and so are less likely to have a colleague available to cover for them during their absence.

There was little difference between male and female employees' inability to disconnect.

The survey found that workers in some professions are less likely to think they can disconnect from work while on PTO—73 percent of teachers and 71 percent of lawyers don't think they can disconnect. Teachers often return from summer break having worked while school was out, Glassdoor noted, with many carrying over stress and fatigue into the new school year. 

Staying connected doesn't mean staying loyal, however. A survey conducted in June with 1,000 full-time employees found that working while on vacation makes people more likely to quit. The findings show among 52 percent who stayed very connected to work while on vacation, 71 percent followed through with their plans to quit. They're more likely to be Millennials, members of Generation Z and caregivers, according to the survey from Visier, a people analytics firm.

Why Can't They Unplug?

"Some employees don't use their time in a fear of missing out on important company updates or because of the increased stress that comes with the build-up of tasks that need to be completed immediately before they take time off and/or once they return to the office," said Leslie Tarnacki, senior vice president of HR at Workforce Software in Livonia, Mich.

"With this uncertain economy, many employers are putting off filling vacant roles, which can increase the burden on remaining employees," Korn Ferry senior director and engagement specialist Mark Royal said in a statement about the findings.

These fears can cause staff members to work when they should be enjoying their time off.

"To prevent employees from feeling overwhelmed during their time away and to encourage them to take their paid time off to relax and do the things they love the most," Tarnacki noted, "it's essential … [to] support employees during their holiday or vacation and allow them to have uninterrupted time away."

Unsupportive managers are among the reasons workers don't take vacation or work when they do so.

"All workers would love the opportunity to truly 'unplug' from their work when they're on vacation," said Mario Almonte, president of New York City-based Herman & Almonte Public Relations. "Most employers, however, while 'encouraging' their staff to do so, will actually sabotage them by creating an environment where employees feel insecure about disconnecting from work."

Almonte said he's often seen this occur among colleagues at other companies.

"They want to disconnect from work while on vacation, but their managers make no effort to help them offload any ongoing work while they are away. As a result, they go away with a sense of anxiety that, if they don't carefully track a particular, ongoing project, they'll be blamed if it fails."

And if supervisors don't model behavior that supports use of vacation time, their workers likely won't either.

"If we're constantly checking our work e-mail on vacation, our employees will likely do the same," said Richard Smith, senior HR manager, Hong Kong-based Notta.ai, an artificial intelligence-based productivity application. 

"For example, we could discourage employees from sending work-related emails outside of business hours or limit the number of times they can access work-related systems while on vacation," he said. "By making it clear that we value our employees' time off, we can encourage them to truly disconnect and enjoy their hard-earned vacation days."

Should employers force workers to take time off? There is some debate over this, but it is important to set clear expectations around PTO.

"I know people do their best work when they're feeling fresh and creative, not burned out. … They come back with their best ideas, fresh perspective and new energy," said Kirsten Moorefield, co-founder and COO at Cloverleaf, an automated coaching platform and startup in Cincinnati. "That said, I know some of my people feel guilty taking time off, and I have to tell them to not check e-mail on vacation.

"Leaders should always talk with [employees] to clarify priorities," she added. "What I can take off their plate, and what can wait until they get back?"

Check out these strategies other organizations use to encourage employees to take PTO so they return recharged.

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