If vacations are supposed to be a time to recharge, then a lot of Americans are running on depleted batteries.

Fewer than 3 in 10 U.S. employees used all of their paid vacation time last year. And those who did were often still tethered to job tasks while away, sometimes for as many as three hours a day, according to a survey by Qualtrics that found a surprising number of workers struggle with balancing their work and nonwork lives in ways that protect and nurture relationships, allow time for hobbies and otherwise rejuvenate them.

The study of 1,021 U.S. residents 18 or older who are employed full-time was fielded in early January. It found that work bled over into vacation time because workers fear falling behind on work and letting down their team, and also face pressure from co-workers.

Among the survey’s findings:

  • 31% of U.S. adults said they are expected to answer phone calls or texts while on vacation, 27% are expected to respond to emails or messages and 20% are expected to be online.
  • 45% of employees get no more than two weeks of paid vacation time each year, while 9% don’t get any.
  • More than half said they might stay longer with a company if they had more vacation time.
  • Yet, on average, employees had 9.5 unused vacation days when 2021 ended — and one-third of employees say vacation days do not roll over.

Challenges facing American workers today go well beyond blurred lines between work and vacation days, experts told the Deseret News. Folks often struggle to be done at the end of a regular work shift.

“Americans struggle with overwork and can do so much that they experience diminishing returns (and) become less productive,” said Dr. Colin West, who is both a physician and a Ph.D. The Mayo Clinic internal medicine doctor has studied burnout for nearly 20 years.

While it’s often not the American way of doing business, West said being productive in a sustainable way is better for both employers and their employees. It reduces burnout and turnover, and boosts well-being, he said.

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A mental health crisis? 

The new survey is far from the first to show that U.S. workers see work as a source of mental health issues, according to Benjamin Granger, who holds a doctorate in organizational psychology and leads Qualtrics’ employee experience advisory service practice. In his company’s new report, 58% called work the primary source of mental health problems.

The pandemic stirred things up — creating uncertainty and amping up stress. Humans are not good with uncertainty, he noted, adding that, “We imagine the worst and it takes a real mental toll on us.”

The rumination may go like this, he says: Will I lose my job? Will I need to come into the office? Will I have to be vaccinated? Will I be around people who aren’t? What about masks? When will this end?

While there’s evidence that hybrid and remote work arrangements have generally been positive, they have also introduced what he calls “novel challenges,” including making it even harder to untangle personal and work lives.

“That has the potential to create or exacerbate mental health challenges,” said Granger, who finds it concerning that some consistently work on their vacations and don’t feel recharged when they are back to work after taking time off.

Do people pressure themselves or do employers really expect workers to be always on? “Probably a mix,” said Granger, citing stories of people who scroll messages so they don’t miss something and those who go to work when they’re sick because they don’t want to get behind. 

Olivia Cornwell, a licensed clinical social worker at Thriveworks Therapy in Orem, sees the impact of the always-at-work culture among her clients. She thinks people may have trouble unplugging because “for a lot of people, there is the kind of constant anxiety” when it comes to work.

“The hard thing is, when it’s in your thoughts, it doesn’t matter if you’re spending time with family or at the beach, your thoughts can still go to work. So I think that anxious thoughts about work are a big part of the challenge,” she said. “From a mental health perspective, I would not be surprised that this phenomenon will lead to worse mental health among people because they constantly find themselves distracted by all kinds of things” diluting the quality of vacation and time off.

Similarly, Emma Xiaolu Zang, an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University, said that, “Even if you are not responding immediately, you are thinking about it. It corresponds to a lack of boundaries between work and life — and increases the frequency of trying to multitask.”

Cornwell said that it’s not just low-level employees on call for managers, since higher-level employees have bosses, too. And often bosses are accountable to someone else, as well. So the stress gets passed both up and down the line.

“I think that it’s definitely harming mental health. It’s harmful to not have these boundaries with work, and your personal life,” she said.

People sometimes think boundaries are matter in personal relationships, but they’re as important with work, as well, Cornwell added.

“It’s finding that balance — not always saying no, but it is saying no when you need the time for yourself,” said Cornwell, who said lack of boundaries creates resentment. “If you keep feeling like you have to answer the emails or do these things even when you’re not clocked in or you’re not getting paid for it, you start to really resent a job that you might otherwise really like.” 

She said stress is known to impact health, from overall mental health to sleep quality, appetite issues, lagging energy and more. Emotionally, one may have less capacity for relationships. It’s all connected, said Cornwell, who notes that when someone is physically tired, they have weaker emotional capacity. 

“You have less ability to have hard conversations or really listen to someone who needs your attention,” she added.

Similarly, West warned that, “You’re not paid for 24/7 365 activities and you have other things in your life that round you out as a human being. And when those other aspects of people’s lives languish, people’s well-being suffers.”

Off when you’re off

Jill Saunders, a Salt Lake City product manager for a software company, doesn’t struggle with setting boundaries, she told the Deseret News. She’s tried it both ways — as a pleaser who seemed to work around the clock and as someone who’s a great employee but has a personal life, too. She prefers the latter and thinks it helps her job performance.

She views her vacation time — and her off-hours time — as part of the contract between her and her employer. When she’s on, she gives it her all. When she’s off, that time is hers.

Vacation days are part of her compensation for her work. “So when I take time off, whether it’s a day or a week, I make it a point not to work during that time, because it’s part of my paycheck,” she said.

Jill Saunders works from home as a product manager in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 4, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

There are occasional — very rare — exceptions, if a real deadline looms and it’s important, said Saunders. But her job is not life-saving work. “Work is important, but you should be able to be gone for X amount of time, especially if you tell them beforehand, without having to come back, she said.

And if there’s after-hours work that isn’t vital, she promises she’ll make it her first priority in the morning, when she’s back at work.

She warns that it takes practice to get expectations aligned in a healthy direction. Sometimes, you have to literally practice what to say, if you’ve let boundaries blur. But it’s worth it for everyone, she adds. She suggests clearing up those expectations early — preferably when you take a job. 

“Setting boundaries is not asking for special treatment,” said Saunders. “It’s what every human deserves.”

Granger said that absent finding some balance, workers find it difficult to rejuvenate, which creates a downstream impact on stress levels. Without downtime, it’s hard to reduce that stress naturally.

“We’ve seen elsewhere that throughout the pandemic, there have been higher rates of addiction than normal, and more abuse in the home. So you’re going to start to see those latent outcomes of the built-up stress. Over time that turns into longer-term or acute mental health issues,” he said.

Businesses suffer the impact, too, because those problems make people less productive, burdens co-workers and can end careers. “It’s a massive problem for business, but more importantly for individuals and their long-term health and well-being,” Granger said.

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Hitting reset

Cornwell said the first step to solving work-time bleed is looking at your own boundaries to see if they’re where you want them. Think about what matters to you — families, friends, sports, whatever. Are they getting enough of your time and attention?

Granger recommends planning way ahead when you schedule vacations and setting expectations with your team. He personally moves his Slack, Gmail and other notification apps to a different page on his phone so that they’re not always in front of him.

Zang said to consider leaving your phone home when you can. She did it accidentally and was surprised by how much time she gained and how well she slept. If that’s not possible, she recommends segregating your time into when you’re available and when you aren’t. You can let co-workers and bosses know you’re only checking emails between 8 and 10 a.m.

Granger believes bosses should be modeling unplugged behavior themselves and talking about it as something that’s healthy. When a leader takes a mental health day, employees know that matters.

Cornwell recommends having a leaving-work ritual — an actual practice at the end of the day. If someone works remotely, it could be as simple as stepping into a different room and putting on music. But it’s a line of demarcation between parts of the day.

She emphasizes that boundaries not only show respect for yourself, but for others, too. If you keep working, others might feel like they need to, as well, Cornwell said.

She added that boundaries also show respect for your job. You want to do it well and bring your best to it every day. That’s easier when you can give it your all and feel upbeat and recharged and have the energy to do so.

“Everyone deserves to have things that are relaxing, that are fun, they deserve to have that balance in their life,” said Cornwell. “I think that takes some work sometimes to find the balance. But when you do, you’ll find that you’re doing just as good if not a better job at your job. And you’re enjoying your relationships and your hobbies and your downtime even more.”

Saunders points out that boundaries are a hedge against burnout, but not a guarantee. She experienced it once at a part-time job. You could go on a weeklong vacation, have a great time, return to work and find that nothing has changed, that things are still stressful and taxing.

And if your vacation is taking the kids to Disneyland, “I don’t necessarily think that’s a vacation for the parents,” she joked.