At Work, On Vacation
The number of American employees expecting to take work with them during time off is increasing, according to a new survey, leaving some HR experts concerned about potential repercussions, including burned-out employees.
By Kecia Bal
As many as three out of five employed Americans (61 percent) say they will spend time on work-related tasks during their summer vacation this year, according to a report by technology provider TeamViewer.
The statistic is up from 52 percent of employees who answered the same question last year. Figures this year were even higher among millennials, with 79 percent of adults ages 34 and younger reporting they expect to need a work-capable device on vacation. That's all in the midst of a slowly improving economy, but Holger Felgner, TeamViewer general manager, says the trend highlighted by the German-based company seems to be closely related to increased use of mobile technology.
"The number of Internet-capable devices like tablets and smartphones is growing steadily, according to the TeamViewer survey from 2012," Felgner says. "As a result, it has never been easier to stay connected regardless of where you are, and because it is so easy to stay connected, workers are finding it hard to stay away. Although they may be on vacation, the responsibilities of work never truly stop."
Meanwhile, another survey -- conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Expedia in June of this year -- found that 38 percent of 2,000 working U.S. adults said they expect to read work-related emails while on vacation; 32 percent said they would be seeking work-related access to a document on a work or home computer; 30 percent expected work-related calls and 24 percent thought they would receive work-related text messages. Another 20 percent reported they anticipated that a boss, client or colleague would ask them to work during their summer vacation.
Most surprising, Felgner says, is that employees plan to bring up to three work-capable devices with them when they take time off this summer.
"Although we haven't asked about the reasons in this study, there are probably various reasons why employees answer their emails and calls during their summer vacation," he says. "Some employees stay connected voluntarily, as they simply want to stay in the loop with everything that is going on, or maybe they simply like what they do. Some may feel that they have to stay available even while away, for example, when there are deadlines for an important project."
But while the survey indicated that workers may be willing and, because of technology, able, many aren't pleased to offer up personal time.
While 34 percent said they'd perform work if asked but not happily, 29 percent said they would "feel that my boss doesn't respect my time." Only 14 percent said they would be "happy" to work, and a few (6 percent) said they would spend vacation time updating their resume to look for a new job.
The potential for burnout should lead companies to examine policies and workplace culture, says Ken Oehler, a partner in Aon Hewitt's global engagement practice.
"With so many more millennials coming in to the workforce, it's all they've ever known, having this type of technology," he says. "I think the reason why it's important [to address around-the-clock employee accessibility] is because it does lend itself to burnout or crossing over a boundary that employees don't want to feel has been violated."
The consulting firm's report, 2013 Trends in Global Engagement, examines employee-engagement issues and burnout, and offers suggestions to improve.
Providing functioning tools and resources can help battle burnout, he says. Ensuring that employees feel able to leave by creating a plan for other employees to cover for vacationing coworkers is important, too, Oehler says, along with treating employees as capable and trustworthy.
"The worst thing a manager can do is to call an employee on vacation to make sure they're doing the work," he says.
The report also shows how the economy can play a role in engagement levels.
"We looked at the connection between the economy and engagement levels and found a lag," Oehler says. "In 2009, when the economy tanked, a year later, engagement went down."
Those employers who have not recognized work/life balance as critical should take note, says Laura Sejen, Towers Watson's global practice leader for rewards.
"From an HR perspective," she says, "I would suggest that it's incumbent upon us to make the business case for appropriate work/life balance, adequate staffing levels and appropriate levels of workplace stress."
Employers that cut back on their workforce during the recession, she says, should re-evaluate their staffing levels now.
"In particular, in the economies hard-hit by the recession, there were so many layoffs or companies that weren't making replacement hires," she says, "and that led to an extreme version of doing more with less."
Towers Watson data, she says, shows that both employers and employees are raising concerns connected to stress, workload and balance, and they have been for several years. The consulting company's firm's Global Workforce Study from 2012 points out potential for work/life balance concerns to impact HR-relevant functions, such as attraction and retention.
"There's the concept of a tipping point," Sejen says. "At some point, it's not going to be healthy for companies or employees, and can lead to a less-productive work environment with less employee engagement if it becomes too extreme or goes on too long."