1 in 2 Professionals Can’t Fully Unplug on Their Vacation

Richard Johnson

July 12, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • A new poll from Fishbowl by Glassdoor found that most professionals have difficulties unplugging from work while taking time off, with 54 percent of professionals reporting that they are unable or do not believe they can fully unplug while on paid time off (PTO).
  • Older professionals have the most difficulty with unplugging on vacation, with almost two-thirds (65 percent) of professionals on Fishbowl aged 45 and above saying they are unable or do not believe they can fully unplug while on PTO, as compared to 47 percent of professionals between the ages of 21 and 25.
  • On Glassdoor: As interest in work flexibility remains, interest in unlimited time off has risen.  Employee reviews on Glassdoor mentioning ‘unlimited’ policies are up 75 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
  • Benefit ratings for unlimited PTO policies soared in 2022 to 4.55 on a 5-point scale, up from 4.25 since before the pandemic began. By contrast, benefit ratings for non-unlimited PTO policies are 0.43 points lower, at 4.12.

Summer is here and many people will be signing off from work to relax and refresh. However, in today’s working world, ongoing hybrid and remote work policies have interfered with what being “off” truly looks like. To identify how professionals are managing their time off work, Fishbowl by Glassdoor, a social network for working professionals, conducted a poll of over 20,000 professionals asking “Do you believe you can fully unplug from work when you take paid time off (PTO)?”. Most professionals find it difficult or feel they can’t unplug: 54 percent answered ‘No’ or  ‘Unsure’ and  46 percent of professionals answered ‘Yes’.

Why Can’t Workers Seem To Get Away?

There are many reasons why workers may not be able to fully unplug while taking time off from work, ranging from the “always on” work culture to insufficient paid time off. Additionally, some employees might avoid taking time off (or fully disconnecting while off) for fear that it will delay their career advancement. When employees are unable to fully decompress, they return to work not fully recovered, less productive and are more likely to experience mental fatigue and burnout

Conversations on Fishbowl by Glassdoor show how many professionals feel about completely tuning out work while taking time off. Here’s what they are saying:

  • “Do you check your emails when on PTO? I feel like I need to in order to not be overwhelmed when I get back.” – Manager
  • “Why do people “managers” in particular insist on being a martyr while on vacation…. by saying I’ll have my laptop or I’ll have my phone, why do we do this? We’ve earned the time off why is it necessary to be constantly plugged in and why say it? btw - there’s no prize for being a workaholic.” – Senior Manager

How Disconnecting from Work Differs Across Age, Industry and Gender

Although most professionals cannot or do not believe that they can fully unplug, how people feel varies across age, industry and gender. We begin by examining differences in ability to disconnect from work while taking time off, by age.

Workplace experiences and responsibilities often change for professionals as they enter new phases in their lives and careers. The figure above shows that as professionals age, it becomes more difficult for them to fully unplug while taking time off. Older professionals tend to be further along in their careers and in roles that require more years of experience, greater responsibility and people managing than younger professionals. Given the greater demands and job requirements, it is less likely that an older professional will be able to find a colleague to cover for them while they are out on PTO, resulting in them still being accessible. For example, there may be more than one analyst in a department that can take over some of the duties of another analyst that is using PTO, but a managing director will not as easily find another managing director able to cover their duties while also completing their own work.

Younger professionals may fear appearing less committed to their jobs or want to move up in the company and only take time off when they are certain they can fully disconnect. For example, if the majority of the company is taking time off, younger professionals do not have to worry as much about missing out on important meetings, events and other opportunities that would allow for them to move up in the company. This makes it easier to return to work refreshed and fully rejuvenated. Beyond age, there are important differences in how workers across industries manage their time off from work as shown below.

The figure above shows that professionals in Teaching and Law have the highest share of professionals reporting that they are unable or do not believe they can fully unplug while taking time off (73 percent and 71 percent, respectively). Teachers often return from break having worked over the summer, leading many of them to carry over stress and fatigue into the new school year. Additionally, when school is in session many teachers spend their time after-hours grading papers, making it difficult to separate work from their personal lives. In Law, attorneys and staff may experience high-stress from long hours and demanding workloads. Law firms that bill by the hour, for example, make it difficult for their professionals to achieve a balance in their work-life priorities as that may result in less revenue.

As teachers and attorneys continue to grapple with decompressing sufficiently during their time off, professionals in other industries have an easier time getting the rest they need while on vacation. More than half of all Tech and Health professionals report being able to fully unplug while taking time off. Tech employers are known for more generous workplace flexibility policies, including paid time off and sabbaticals, making it easier for their employees to take full advantage of their time away from work and to unplug. In Healthcare, while many professionals such as nurses and physicians work in high-stress environments, their work is primarily done in person and they are therefore less likely to face work-related interruptions while on PTO.

Continuing with this example, is it possible that male and female nurses show differences in their ability to unplug while on PTO? The figures below help unpack gender differences among professionals taking time off of work.

The figure above shows that the majority of male and female professionals cannot or do not believe they can fully unplug from work while taking time off (56 percent for male employees and 52 percent for female employees). The similar share between male and female employees in their ability to disconnect is an indication that company culture has a greater influence on how employees balance their work-life priorities rather than their inherent differences. A company that does not prioritize work-life balance for its workforce will be experienced by all employees regardless of gender or role.

More Employers Offer Unlimited PTO and Employees Love It

More employers are exploring different workplace flexibility policies and employees are in favor of it. We examined vacation and paid time off benefit reviews on Glassdoor from 2017 to May 31, 2022,  and found that unlimited vacation days have become a growing topic of discussion as more employers offer unlimited paid time off. 

On Fishbowl by Glassdoor, many professionals show their interest in unlimited PTO by engaging with other professionals who can offer insights on the various workplace flexibility policies offered by employers.

  • “For those of you with unlimited pto, how much time do you typically take per year?” – Product Designer
  • “What’s the best way to make sure unlimited pto is used wisely?” – Works at PwC
  • “Unlimited PTO... love it or hate it? If your company has it, do you feel able to take it as needed, or is there push-back for "important meetings?" – Director of Recruiting

Overall, more workplace conversations around unlimited PTO are taking place on Fishbowl by Glassdoor as well as in Glassdoor reviews as shown below.

The figure above shows that the share of reviews mentioning ‘unlimited’ policies increased 75 percent, from 6.1 percent in 2019 prior to the pandemic, to 10.7 percent in 2022, as of May 31, showing the growing interest and expansion of unlimited PTO programs.

Employees are overwhelmingly positive about unlimited PTO policies at their jobs, with 88 percent of company reviews discussing unlimited time off in the pros section. This is a record high and comes as employees continue to push for flexible working conditions and focus on balancing work and mental health. The growing popularity can also be seen in the increase in benefit ratings for unlimited PTO policies at 4.55 on a 5-point scale in 2022, up from 4.25 before the pandemic began in 2019. By contrast,  the average rating for vacation and PTO programs that do not mention “unlimited” was only 4.12 out of 5 in 2022, 0.43 points lower, indicating employees distinctly favor unlimited PTO programs.

Overall, employers are doing a better job of meeting their employees in the middle to address their unique workplace experiences. But they could do more to encourage  and support the many employees still struggling with fully unplugging while off.

Trying to Fully Unplug? Here’s What You Should Know

What stands in the way for many employees looking to fully unplug from work when they are on PTO varies greatly, but there are a few strategies they can implement to improve their ability to unplug while out of office:

  • Plan your departure and return. Inform your coworkers that you will be out, whether that be on the team calendar, announced during a meeting or in an out-of-office response they receive when trying to reach you.
  • Don’t be in a rush to return. An insufficient period of time off is counter-productive and may leave you returning to work feeling like you were just at work. Work with your company to find what vacation schedule works best for you.
  • Take time off before you need to take time off. Incorporating frequent breaks throughout your work schedule, whether that be a week, a day or taking an afternoon to yourself, will help reduce the likelihood of exhaustion and burnout.
  • When you’re off, be off. While talking and thinking about work outside of work is tempting, do your best to fully unplug by avoiding checking team communication channels such as emails, Slack, and Teams and instead indulge in activities that take your mind off the daily grind. This will ensure that when you return to work, you are fully rejuvenated and ready to hit the ground running.

Although flexible workplace policies are becoming more common for some companies, it is offset when employees carry work-related stress in their personal lives to the extent that “time off” isn’t fully off. In other words, physically signing off from work is just as important as mentally signing off from work and there is more that employers and employees can do to fully disconnect when they're off, but it begins with setting boundaries.

Newsletter Signup

Sign up to receive updates from the Economic Research Team.