A heavy workload, job pressures—from peers and supervisors—and mobile technology have made it easier for workers to put in office hours even while they’re sitting on a beach. Workations are an all too common occurrence today, and it’s gotten to the point where unplugging doesn’t feel normal anymore—even when the rest is much needed.
Consider that 30 percent of Americans who work 50-plus hours a week say they do a significant amount of work while on vacation, and you can begin to see how this obsession with tackling more work has numerous negative consequences for both the employee and their company. Could there be a scientific reason why employees can’t turn off work?
Beware the Zeigarnik Effect
Employees may be reluctant to take time off because they fear falling behind at work or overburdening colleagues with their workload. It can also be a result of the Zeigarnik Effect, which is “the difficulty people have to completely forget about something when it is left incomplete.” It means your brain can’t forget about work, which leads to that nagging urge to check your email while unwinding in your backyard.
It’s a tendency that is especially pronounced in those with a high need for achievement—a common characteristic of top performers. However, a growing body of research suggests that doing even a little work during paid time off (PTO) can threaten the health and well-being of employees, leading to absenteeism, turnover, and direct medical, legal, and insurance fees.
To fully recover from stress, researchers from Tel Aviv University have determined that employees not only need to be physically be away from the workplace, they also need to mentally unplug from work-related thoughts and activities—in other words, they need to psychologically detach.
Furthermore, more hours worked does not mean organizations are gaining more productivity. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) looked at productivity compared to hours worked per week, and found that countries such as Germany and France, where shorter work weeks are common, achieve higher rates of output than countries working longer hours.
In short, companies don’t perform better when their employees put in extra hours. So how do you encourage staff to embrace unplugging completely from the office while on vacation?
Treat Your Top Performers Like Champion Athletes
The best athletes in the world know that taking time off from training doesn’t hurt their performance. Rather, it makes them stronger, more motivated, and improves their focus. Here are a few ways to help your star “athletes” get the recovery they deserve:
1. Teach People How to Disconnect
There will always be those employees who simply can’t turn off work, so use their highly motivated attitude to encourage a form of active rest instead. Active rest is typically used by athletes and involves taking a day off from training to recover, rebuild muscle and become stronger. Create a culture where people expect vacations are meant to allow them to come back recovered and stronger.
Disconnecting is harder to do when you are always worrying there may be an urgent email that has just landed in your inbox. Train people to include an escalation option for urgent issues in their out of office responses so it becomes the email sender’s responsibility to take action.
2. Have Fact-Based Discussions with Line Managers
There are many reasons why employees feel that they need to stay plugged into work while they’re poolside: personal achievement, work overload, manager pressure, a company culture that doesn’t properly support time off, etc.
Using HR analytics can help you uncover what’s really driving employees towards workations and provide you with the data points needed to coach line managers on how to effectively discourage this behavior in staff. It can be as simple as taking away their email access while they’re away or hiring more resources to spread out the workload.
3. Use Analytics to Focus on Who’s at Risk
A data-driven HR approach can also help you identify the employees who are at most risk of burning out and therefore, really need to unplug while on vacation. Often these are the employees who don’t take time off after busy periods (such as the Christmas season for the retail industry) or are part of a team with a history of resignations.
Use analytics to determine which locations, departments or teams have the highest rates of absence per employee and highest resignation rates. Also investigate these other data points as they can reveal more information on an employee’s risk level: PTO history, sick leave history, workation history (do they check into the office when they’re supposed to be on vacation?), and their team’s yearly workload requirements.
Once you identify these individuals, work with their managers to find ways that will help these employees better cope with their workload so they can leave work behind when they take time off.
4. Promote Activities That Defeat the Zeigarnik Effect
Because this tendency is all about obsessing over an unfinished task, the way to circumvent it is to distract yourself so you brain can’t hold its focus on work. Fortunately, when one is on vacation, there can be plenty of distractions. Encourage managers to celebrate those employees who use their vacations to do something immersive and fun and so cannot reach for their smartphones and check into the office.
Treat Vacations Like It’s Part of The Job (and It Is!)
Vacations are the time to recover and recharge. They are critical to your whole workforce, particularly your senior leaders, high potential performers, productivity centres, and those who lead innovation. And considering employees are being paid to take this time off, it is part of their jobs to go on vacation and fully enjoy them without work getting in the way.
So support employees to have the time and space to psychologically detach from work. Let your employees know that you aren’t asking them to take a vacation—you’re asking them to optimize their performance and build their career momentum, something that they can relate to and want to pursue.