Ideas and insights for today’s people-centered leaders.



Do Workations Increase Employee Absenteeism?

It’s peak vacation season. The next time you find yourself sitting in the airport or maybe lounging by the hotel pool, take a look around at the people who are glued to their smartphones and iPads. While kids may be connecting with friends, checking Facebook or reading the latest Buzzfeed post, the furrowed brows and frantic typing of adults may point to an ongoing connection to the office.

The fact that we can now work from virtually anywhere at any time has made working during leisure time a reality. You may be physically gone from the office, but you don’t ever really leave; not even when you’re on vacation.

Enter the “Workation.”

Workations happen when you don’t “turn off”; you stay connected and available. According to a survey conducted by Pertino, more than half (59%) of Americans regularly check email, take a phone call and more during vacation. And 36% work at least once a day.

The benefits, workationers will tell you, are “keeping on top of things,” “knowing things are being taken care of properly,” and “not having so much to catch up on.” In fact, 47% of workationers say they are less stressed because they are connected. But a growing body of research suggests that even a little work during Paid Time Off (PTO) can threaten the health and well-being of employees in a way that impacts the company’s bottom line.

Why Support Unplugged Vacationing?

Vacations aren’t just a generosity provided by employers. They exist for a reason. Think about cyclists who over-train and then fail to perform because, in an effort to get faster and stronger, they’ve gone well beyond their body’s ability to recover. It’s similar with work.

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. According to German researchers, “employees who experience more detachment from work during off-hours are more satisfied with their lives and experience fewer symptoms of psychological strain, without being less engaged while at work.”

So a good strategy for avoiding psychological strain is to help employees keep contact with the workplace at a bare minimum during time off – if not eliminate the connection completely.

The Cost of Workations

When people don’t have the opportunity to detach or mentally switch off, the stress and fatigue of work have a significant impact on the business. The World Health Organization estimates that stress costs American businesses $300 billion dollars a year through absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover, and direct medical, legal and insurance fees.

Another recent study conducted by SHRM for Kronos looked at the costs associated with absenteeism, including direct and indirect costs to organizations for unplanned, planned, and extended PTO. The study found that the total cost for PTO as a percentage of payroll ranged from 20.9% to 22.1% in the United States – enormous numbers.

According to the 2007 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, employers have “failed to make significant headway against the costly absenteeism problem that takes billions of dollars off the bottom line for U.S. businesses. The nation’s largest employers estimate that unscheduled absenteeism costs their businesses more than $760,000 per year in direct payroll costs, and even more when lower productivity, lost revenue and the effects of poor morale are considered.” At the time of the 2007 survey, the percentage of US workers absent from work in a given week was 2.3. This is lower than the 2014 rate, which was 2.9.

Further, a 2011 CIPD survey found that stress was also the leading cause of long-term sickness absence for workers.

To sum it up, workations impact not just workationers, but the team around them that tries to accommodate for their burnout and absence. It can lead to a range of top line and bottom line impacts to the business.

How to Calculate the Impact of Workations

Whether it’s the workplace culture (“if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”), fear of letting others down, or misunderstanding how to optimize personal performance, there are many reasons why people choose to workation and they aren’t all about reducing stress (as the good little workationer might tell you).

The real question for your organization is, do workations actually have a negative impact on your business?

Evidence of workation stress can be found in your historical data. Follow these steps:

Step 1:

  • Determine which locations, departments or teams have the highest rates of absence per employee and highest resignation rates, so you can understand where to focus your attention.

Step 2:

  • Take a look to see if there is a relationship between absenteeism and a particular manager. If people feel they’re required to work on vacation because “the boss is always watching”, it can show up in more absence days. It can also show up in engagement scores and resignation rates. These are signs that a particular group may not be getting the time off they need.

Step 3:

  • Explore where the holiday paid time off trap (i.e. managers forcing people to take PTO — yet still work — during peak seasons) may be happening, so that you can actively encourage time off during appropriate times of year.

Step 4:

  • Examine the factors that are contributing to the absence rates (e.g., all the employee attributes that are associated with increases and decreases in absenteeism) so that you know what levers to use to make changes – and if enforcing vacation time is one of them.

Step 5:

  • Monitor the cost of workations, as seen through the cost of key contributing factors.

Workations - Absenteeism

Using an evidence-based approach, HR can drive productivity in the business, while reducing financial liability.

Promoting Vacations

During the Tour de France, cyclists race 100 miles per day for 21 days. What breeds a top performer in this competition is not more riding, but more rest. Some even use hyperbaric chambers to ensure they recover to perform.

In the business world, 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.

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. Then support them to take the time off. Ensure that there is someone available to backfill their role, and consider taking away their access to email.

As the Director of Television at BBC has found out, when you take away email, people don’t call to disrupt a vacation. It turns out that most work emergencies aren’t actual emergencies after all.

About the author: Ian Cook

Ian is an advocate for the crucial role that people play in helping companies thrive. His career has focused on enabling people, teams and companies to perform at their best. For the last 15 years Ian has been helping leaders elevate their HR strategies and programs through the effective use of people analytics. At Visier, Ian led the development of our market leading solution and is now focused on the overall strategy for the people analytics business.

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