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Employers’ PTO Problem: Employees Working on Vacation

woman sitting on balcony outdoors overlooking beautiful scene outside while looking at her laptop

As summer kicks into gear, scores of employees are readying to use their paid time off (PTO) to go on vacation and spend some time away from the workplace. But organizations are experiencing a problem that could spell trouble down the road: Employees are working during their time off.

PTO is considered one of the most important benefits that employers can offer. The 2024 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey found that employers said paid-leave benefits are tied with retirement benefits as the second most important benefits type, with 81% of HR leaders saying those benefits are “very important” or “extremely important,” behind only health care benefits. But other data reveals that employees who are taking time off work aren’t getting the full benefits of the time away.

An April Harris Poll found that even when they did take time off, 60% of respondents said they struggled to fully disconnect from work, 86% said they would check emails from their boss, and 56% took work-related calls during their time off. Nearly half said they felt guilty about taking time off in the first place. And another survey of workers from online learning platform ELVTR found that a large majority of employees (68%) admitted to working during vacations.

“It’s a pretty common issue,” said Nicholette Leanza, a therapist at mental health provider LifeStance Health in North Royalton, Ohio, who noted she has often checked emails and messages while on vacation.

It’s part of the new working world: A couple of decades ago, remote and hybrid work was much rarer, smartphones were nonexistent, and employers couldn’t easily reach their workers. It took much more effort to work during time off or be interrupted by a work problem. Now, the new norm is smartphones with email, Slack, and other workplace messaging systems; easy-to-pack laptops; and lots of work being performed away from traditional offices.

“Our smartphones make it so easy for employees to check emails and messages, which then keeps them constantly connected to work even though they should be concentrating on relaxing and enjoying their time off,” Leanza said.

In 2024, the lines between work and home life are more blurred than ever, said Paaras Parker, CHRO at Paycor, a human capital management software company based in Cincinnati.

“Because of new balance in the workplace, many employees are also running short errands, throwing laundry in the washing machine, heading to a doctor appointment during the workday—creating the balance that is needed,” Parker said. “PTO is likely no different.”

But while some employees may view checking in on work during vacation as a new normal, there’s risk if they do: It can have a detrimental effect on well-being—and lead some employees to quit.

“Constant connectivity, especially during PTO, does not allow the employee to step back from their jobs to truly rest and decompress,” Leanza said. “This will more than likely lead employees to feel burned out and stressed out, which will have a direct effect on their mental health by increasing stress and anxiety and even the potential for depression.”

In general, employee stress and burnout is on the rise, with an Aflac report finding that well over half of employees (57%) are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout. A recent SHRM report released in May found that 1 in 3 employees said their job frequently causes them stress. And not taking a breather from work is certainly not helping, experts said.

It can take a big hit on employers, as well.

Leanza said employees feeling more burned out and stressed may ultimately lead them to “become more cynical about their jobs and less productive and may breed resentment and low morale. This ultimately reflects poorly on the company culture, where there may not be an emphasis on nurturing a work/life balance or setting appropriate boundaries between work and personal life.”

A 2022 survey from software company Visier found that people who worked on vacation, even voluntarily, were much more likely to think about quitting their jobs—and to actually leave their organizations—than those who didn’t work on vacation.

The findings indicate that employers should do a better job enforcing boundaries on paid-time-off benefits—not just offering PTO to employees, but ensuring that when they do use it, they use it properly.

“Now more than ever, companies must address the feeling and expectation to be always on by taking a stand and encouraging employees to unplug and decompress when out of the office,” said Mark Debus, manager of behavioral health at Sedgwick, a third-party claims administrator that works with employers.

How to Help

Employers can help to mitigate the issue by better prepping for workers’ time off, explicitly telling employees not to answer emails, and creating and promoting a culture of work/life balance and overall well-being.

The culture approach starts at the top, Debus said.

“Employees need to feel comfortable advocating for themselves and protecting their time off, and they often look toward their managers for cues on how to do this effectively,” he said. “If an employer truly values mental wellness in their workforce, they prioritize a work culture that supports employees and their managers taking time off.”

One way to do this is to encourage managers and supervisors to not respond to emails while they are on PTO and to not text or email their employees while their employees are taking time off of work.

“Your employees need to see that their managers are not checking in at all hours during a planned vacation,” Debus said.

Others said that managers could help by explicitly telling their workers not to answer messages so they can truly take time away from work while on PTO. Leanza said that organizations can even go as far as to block employees’ access to their email accounts or messages while on PTO to divert any possible temptation to work—or at least give workers the option to do so.

Appropriate planning and arranging for extra help that can fill in when certain workers are on vacation, if needed, is also important.

Before taking time off, managers can create alternate workstreams that enable employees to make decisions or have a backup plan during their absence. “This also includes prioritizing coverage for employees who are out of office to proactively allow employees to feel comfortable signing off during vacation,” Debus said.

Parker added that it’s important to ensure “your company values setting expectations and having regular dialogue between employees and managers.” Clear goals, expectations, and open communication are all key, she said.

Because some employees spend time on vacation working so they don’t come back to a pile of tasks, managers can also consider implementing return-to-work procedures that help ease employees back into their work duties from their PTO, especially if it was a significant amount of time off, Leanza said.

Some of those actions can help, but the most important thing is to focus on mental health and work/life balance year-round, experts said.

Companies that proactively promote work/life balance and mental health—through programs and benefits, culture, and attitudes—likely have employees who feel more comfortable taking vacations and fully disengaging from work.

After all, as Leanza said, one of the biggest reasons people work during their time off is because “their workplace culture encourages them to still be available, even when they're on vacation.”


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