HR Leads Business

Aug 21, 2017 | Barry Lawrence, MBA, aPHR

Employees Get Mixed Messages About Working on Vacation

At the beach, the mountains and other summer getaways, half of non-essential workers believe there are no company expectations for them to work while on vacation. The other half? About a third of employees remain unsure whether they are expected to combine work with relaxation; and 16 percent believe they, indeed, must pack laptops along with their flip-flops to conduct work while taking paid time off (PTO).

Once on vacation, however, more than three-fourths of workers bite the bullet and are likely to at least work occasionally, finds an HR Certification Institute® (HRCI®) online poll that captures the opinions of nearly 300 professionals employed as HR practitioners for organizations (Download HRCI Vacation Poll PDF).

Employees and their vacation habits are confounded by a mixed bag of written company policies, unspoken expectations, shared beliefs, and poor examples set by CEOs, supervisors and others. This, despite plenty of evidence about vacation’s power to improve employee wellness and how rejuvenated employees are often more productive contributors.

Once workers reach their vacation destination:

  • 59 percent "occasionally" work when on vacation.
  • 17 percent "always" or "almost always" work when on vacation.
  • 24 percent "rarely" or "never" work when on vacation.

The data from the HRCI online poll suggests that businesses and HR can do more to make PTO a richer benefit for employees and the organization.

Vacation Policies Influence Behaviors and Beliefs

Developing a written policy that discourages work on vacation is a good place to start. But based on the views of the HR professionals surveyed, only 31 percent say their organizations have written policies that specifically discourage work during time off.

Workers at these companies fare somewhat better to enjoy work-free vacations vs. workers from companies without a written policy to discourage work:

  • 63 percent "occasionally" work when on vacation vs. 56 percent from non-policy companies.
  • 10 percent "always" or "almost always" work when on vacation vs. 21 percent.
  • 27 percent "rarely" or "never" work when on vacation vs. 23 percent.

Policy, it seems, is often trumped by more powerful cultural influences – especially the examples set by supervisors and others in the workplace.

It’s important "to incentivize employees not to squander paid time off" and to create a culture "that promotes the use of vacation as the expected and responsible thing to do," writes Bethany Lampland in Forbes. That starts with good bosses, she believes.

Employees Take Vacation Cues From Management

Executives and managers, indeed, have a huge influence on vacation habits. HR experts agree.

"Too many people limit their happiness and success by assuming that taking time off from work will send a negative message to their manager and slow their career advancement, writes Shawn Achor in Harvard Business Review. Achor’s article notes research that says "the exact opposite is true. Taking a vacation can actually increase the likelihood of getting a raise or a promotion."

Supervisors, 46 percent of HR respondents say, have the biggest influence on employee expectations about working on vacation, followed by the C-suite executives (22 percent), self (20 percent), HR (5 percent), other employees (4 percent) and other factors (3 percent).

In addition to policy and getting the word out about the value of work-free vacation time, HR must also take extra time working with managers to ensure they are setting the right PTO examples. As Lampland puts it, supervisors must "walk the talk" when it comes to work on vacation. She also encourages managers to celebrate employee vacations.

"Ask [employees] if they are comfortable sharing a few pictures and the highlights of their latest adventures at the next team meeting. Put up a dream vacation scrap board in the office pantry and invite your team to contribute their fantasy vacations. Make it a meeting ice breaker to talk about what each employee would do with a one-day staycation in his or her own hometown."

HR Opinions About PTO

When asked to choose the right amount of yearly vacation days for employees today, the largest percentage of HR professionals (46 percent) chose 15 days, followed by 37 percent who believe more than 15 days is the right amount, and 17 percent who believe that roughly 10-14 days is sufficient.

When asked how much time they personally spend working while on vacation, 72 percent of HR professionals say they work at least "occasionally" while on vacation – about the same as other employees.

Most often, HR professionals say their vacation work involves reading email (72 percent), responding to an emergency (20 percent) or working on a project (5 percent). For vacations of five days or longer, most HR professionals say they prefer to spend a few minutes each day on work over the span of the entire vacation.

Vacation: More Than a Perk

It’s important for all employees – HR included – to be reminded that PTO is a benefit, not just a perk.

Early finding from a Project: Time Off report agrees that "employees are plagued with uncertainty" and even "unsure if they should take time off." The study adds that nearly two-thirds of employees say they "hear nothing, [get] mixed messages or [receive] discouraging messages about taking time off."

HR can turn the "vacation vacuum" around with clearer written policies and by being champions — along with management — for work-free rest and relaxation.