The workplace landscape is undoubtedly changing, and fast. 38% of employees currently do some of their work at home, and roughly 45% of workers are fully remote, according to Gallup. By the end of 2022, 25% of all U.S. jobs are projected to be under a remote or hybrid model. And by 2025, 36.2 million employees are expected to be working remotely.
Work-from-home, hybrid, and ROWE (results-only work environment) work models will soon be the norm, and for many, this is great news. Working from home or remotely has obvious benefits—flexibility on where you work, convenient scheduling, and sometimes it’s more cost-effective.
But these models aren’t void of downsides. A lack of clear communication, structure, and encouragement within a digital work culture can cause disengagement, fatigue, and mental burnout. Plus, working alone or on different schedules can lead to feelings of isolation. The consequences of these issues are happening in real-time. Employee disengagement, dissatisfaction, and turnover have been trending upward since the pandemic, and stress and mental health issues are rising.
Some of these workplace issues aren’t new, though, so what’s the problem?
The problem is that many employees no longer know how to disconnect from work and take time off. The U.S. has a reputation for overwork, as demonstrated by its placement on the World Population Review Top 10 list of overworked countries, with 11.1% of employees working more than 50 hours per week. The unique nuances of remote models, however, seem to blur the lines between work-life balance even more.
According to a 2022 report by Zippia, 55% of American employees don’t use all of their PTO. In contrast, a survey by New View Strategies revealed that one in ten European employees take 30 or more days off per year. So, why are American employees struggling to take time off? And, if they do, why are they having difficulty truly disconnecting?
Key Takeaways for Disconnecting and Taking Time Off
- Work culture influences an employee’s perceived ability to take time off, regardless of formal policies.
- Setting expectations, using auto-responders, and ignoring alerts are essential to getting the most from personal time used.
- Not taking time off can lead to serious health conditions.
Why Is Taking Time Off So Hard To Do?
768,000,000 days of PTO went unused in 2018, according to a report by Zippia. This amount is staggering for a country that highly values time off. After all, 63% of job candidates would reject a job offer if it didn’t include PTO. So what’s so hard about taking time off? Don’t you just send an email or file a request and leave? That might have been the case in the 90s, but these days, there are several reasons employees choose not to leave the office or set their statuses to “away.”
1. Fear of Looking Like a Slacker
The harder you work, the more committed you are, right? Wrong. But, this is the belief serving as the undercurrent in many companies. Employees want to look good to their employers. They want recognition and for their work to be valued. They want to “climb the ladder,” receive bonuses and gain the respect of their colleagues. To do this, many feel they have to “push through,” stay late, avoid taking time off, or risk looking like slackers.
Joey Price, the CEO of an HR firm in Baltimore, said: “Culturally in America, we equate taking time off as quitting or not having a high work ethic . . . there is stigma around the idea of not working.”
The stigma behind taking time off from work also comes from the employer. An HR study by the Tavistock Institute, for example, agrees that “passive face time can affect employees’ status, performance evaluations, raises, promotions, and job security—even though being observed at the work site may not be linked to actual productivity.” According to the 2019 Priceline Work-Life Balance Report, one in three employees have admitted to falsely calling in sick just to secure a day off, guilt-free.
2. Fear of Being Replaced
The Great Resignation has resulted in a record number of resignations. A survey by ResumeBuilder further reports that 1 in 4 workers plan on quitting their jobs in 2022. In fact, according to the latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary, there were 11.3 million open jobs as of May 2022.
This trend has caused concern and perceived competition amongst full-time workers. 61% of employees cite “the fear of looking replaceable” as the biggest reason for not using all of their vacation time, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Travel Association.
3. Fear of Returning to a Pile of Work
A report by the American Psychological Association revealed that one-third of employees say their workload makes it difficult to take time off. Further, 42% of those who do take time off, despite their workload, dread returning, while 49% say they come back to an even heavier workload due to tasks that piled up in their absence. This is enough to deter anyone from taking time off.
4. Lack of Leadership Support
Julie Stone, managing director of benefits at Willis Towers Watson, explains in an interview with Fortune that unlimited PTO works well “in [an office] culture where you have permission to take that unlimited time . . . It’s almost the difference between the construct and the concept . . . I’ve seen some places where it’s worked well, but mostly not yet.”
A company may offer standard PTO, unlimited PTO, or even be a ROWE culture where reporting time off isn’t expected. These benefits don’t matter though if leadership doesn’t encourage employees to take time off or support them when they do. An APA report revealed that less than half—only 41%—of employees felt their culture encouraged time off.
What Does It Mean to Take Time Off?
If you went on vacation recently but had your email open and your work alerts on the whole time, you didn’t really take time off. Similarly, if you took a personal day but accepted work calls, reviewed a project, and remained available for messages, that’s also not taking time off.
Unfortunately, this is the new idea of what taking time off looks like for many. With collaborative and work messaging apps—like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Monday—right on employees’ cell phones, the ability to truly disconnect has become a distant thought.
It’s tempting to be productive while you’re “out of the office.” However, studies by the Harvard Business Review suggest that doing so reduces intrinsic motivation, making you enjoy your work less in the long run. Nearly 59% of employees report feeling disinterested, disengaged, and unfocused with their work. Further, 60% of leaders report signs of work burnout at the end of each work day. Burnout, according to the World Health Organization, occurs when “chronic workplace stress” has not been “successfully managed.”
In contrast, a study by the American Psychological Association revealed that 71% of employees with supportive work cultures that encouraged time off felt more motivated when they returned from vacation, and 73% felt more productive.
Taking time off means disconnecting completely from work, expectations, and anticipated workload. It means managing stress, engaging in enjoyable activities, and making the most of unclocked time.
Signs It’s Time to Disconnect
More people than ever have been experiencing work fatigue since the start of the pandemic. According to the Harvard Business Review, 89% of employees say their work-life balance has worsened, and the American Psychological Association reports stress and burnout are highest across all jobs.
But what are the signs of burnout and overwork? And how can we discern normal levels of stress from knowing when it’s time to take time off? Here are some indicators of burnout that the World Health Organization says to watch for:
- Feelings of exhaustion and depletion
- Negative feelings towards one’s job and increased distancing
- Reduction in efficacy and productivity
Not sure if this is you? The Maslach Burnout Toolkit is the leading resource for determining burnout.
Mental and Physical Benefits of Disconnecting
A two-week study by the American Psychological Association suggests that incoming texts, social media notifications, calls, and other alerts contribute to levels of inattention and hyperactivity. Further, APA researchers found excessive cell phone use interferes with sleep quality.
These two factors alone are enough to advocate against the use of devices during periods of downtime. But also consider this—if hyperactivity, an inability to relax, and poor sleep occur for a prolonged amount of time, more serious health problems can also develop. According to the Cleveland Clinic, chronic sleep deprivation can sometimes lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, reduced immunity, and more.
Taking supportive time off, however, has proven effective in mitigating some of these issues. The APA Work and Well-Being Study showed that 58% of employees reported feeling more productive and that their work quality was better; 68% said their mood was better; 66% said they had more energy; 57% reported feeling less stressed overall, and 84% said they sleep well.
And this is good for businesses, too, because when employees feel productive, rested, and engaged, businesses perform better. A poll by Gallup found that companies with engaged employees had 21% greater profitability than companies with disengaged employees.
Taking Time Off the Right Way
Communicate Your Intentions
According to career experts at BetterUp, the best way to put your request in for time off is to do so in advance and in writing. Start by communicating your intentions of when you’d like to begin your time off and how available you’ll be while away. Share any relevant details your team or leaders may need to know, without oversharing, and express your request with confidence.
Provide a Recap Before
Before you leave, prepare a summary recap of where projects stand, upcoming deadlines, and other pertinent information others will need to know in your absence. This will help your team pivot accordingly and ensure critical tasks are completed in your absence.
Set Clear Expectations
Set clear expectations for your team and colleagues while you’re away. If someone is covering your projects in your absence, for example, communicate that. Or if you want a heads up when a certain project is complete, let your team know. This helps avoid any confusion or communication missteps later on.
State Your Availability (or Lack Thereof)
Let your team know when you would and would not like to be contacted, as applicable. If you are going to be in another time zone and likely unavailable, for example, be sure others are aware. Or if you’d like to remain available to your team during certain times, let them know the windows that they have.
Set Statuses and Auto-Responders
An often forgotten final step is setting the “away” status and preparing your out-of-office auto-email responders. This is important if you work remotely and don’t see your colleagues in person or work at the same time. Your status and auto-responders remind others that you’re taking time off and can help reduce unnecessary interruptions.
Things to Avoid Doing When Taking Time Off
According to the Journal of Happiness Studies, “Besides having sufficient time for leisure, subjective experiences during leisure time are crucial for recovery from work stress.” You need enough time to rest, but it also has to be quality time. To maximize your time off, avoid doing these things:
- Answering any work-related emails
- Staying at home the whole time
- Doing the same things you normally do
- Doing anything that resembles your job
- Having guilt about taking time for yourself
4 Companies That Prioritize Taking Time Off
1. Bamboo HR
At BambooHR, employees receive four weeks of PTO, which rolls over but doesn’t continue accumulating. According to an employee review, once four weeks are accumulated, human resources reaches out to highly encourage the employee to use that time.
Bamboo HR supplies employees with 12 hours of volunteer time, 5 paid holidays, 5 flexible holidays, and their birthdays off. Plus, their “paid paid vacation” program pays employees to take vacations. The Paid Vacation Policy at BambooHR has been such a hit that it was featured on The Today Show.
Employees at Asana receive unlimited paid vacation, paid holidays, sick days, and even sabbatical time. Team members have said the leadership team is “very accessible and transparent” and that they “provide great support and empowerment to employees.” Asana also offers a flexible work-from-home policy, gym membership and reimbursement plans, company social outings, and maternity/paternity leave. The company has an A+ culture score on Comparably and won the Best Company Culture award in 2019.
3. Capital One
Capital One employees receive four weeks of paid time off as a standard, and they can also purchase an extra 20 or 40 hours. Additionally, employees receive 14 paid holidays, three Family Care Days, and various options for temporary leave. Capital One has an A+ Perks and Benefits score on Comparably and 4.4 stars out of five based on 407 ratings on Glassdoor.
Adobe provides full-time employees with unlimited paid time off and they have two paid company-wide breaks each year. One break takes place in the summer and the other over the holiday season in the winter. In addition to that, Adobe provides special days off—called Global Wellbeing Days—solely for the well-being of employees. Adobe has an A+ culture score on Comparably and has won 10 awards in 2022, including one for Best Leadership Teams.
Taking Time Off for Total Balance
Despite the accessibility, temptation, and pressure to remain “always on,” disconnecting from work to take time for yourself is an important part of living a healthy and balanced life. Ditch the fear and guilt of claiming what’s rightfully yours. Take time for yourself and your loved ones and learn to truly step away from day-to-day demands. It will make you not only a better employee in the long run but also a better, happier person.
If you find yourself in a culture that prohibits or discourages you from doing so, consider reading “Should I Quit My Job? 7 Reasons to Start Looking for a New Role.”