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'Quiet vacationing': Surveys show workers don't use all of their vacation days, play hooky

A stock photo of someone working in an office. (Pexels/Marc Mueller) A stock photo of someone working in an office. (Pexels/Marc Mueller)
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The final slice at the office pizza party, left unclaimed until nobody's looking; the undeclared first-class upgrade on the overnight business trip and now, the underutilized paid time off (PTO), balanced with an occasional habit of playing hooky.

As coined by Libby Rodney, chief strategy officer of the market research firm The Harris Poll, "quiet vacationing" is the latest new term to describe the prickly edges of office culture, and new data shows it's widespread among North American workers.

Conducted by Harris in late April, the U.S. survey of 1,170 employed adults found that 78 per cent of workers didn't use their full allotted PTO or vacation days, and an October 2022 survey by Maru Public Opinion of 811 Canadians found the same to be true for an average 71 per cent of those north of the border.

 

But while there may be vacation days left on the table, signs also emerged that some are taking part of that time anyway, albeit through less direct means.

Close to three in 10 respondents to the Harris survey reported slipping out of the office without telling their bosses, or employing workarounds to cover up their idle time, like nudging their mouse to appear active, or scheduling emails to send when they're not working.

To Anil Verma, a professor emeritus at the Rotman School of Management, that "look-busy" instinct may be borne more from popular myth than empirical experience.

"I'm not sure how many bosses of the old school are still around, [those] who would judge your diligence and productivity by how many emails you sent," he said in an interview with CTVNews.ca.

"If your coworkers are one-upping you, then you are more likely to follow, because you would judge yourself by looking at your peers."

On all of the above scores, surveys show that generational differences skew toward younger workers taking less time off and engaging more often in so-called "quiet vacation" behaviours.

With unemployment rates back in the pre-pandemic ballpark and a new generation of young professionals angling to climb the ladder, the balance of appearing productive and surviving the work week is a constant concern.

But just how new is the concept, after all?

"I've seen these numbers 25, 30 years ago," Verma said. "Not taking the vacations and this appearing to be working all of the time … I think these are two distinct phenomena."

Out of office, still in mind

Survey data show the stresses of work contributing to less time taken off, not more, as workers struggle to separate from professional obligations.

Thirty-one per cent of U.S. respondents to the Harris survey said that "pressure to always be available and responsive to demands" was a barrier to utilizing more of their allowed time off, with "heavy workload" close behind at 30 per cent.

Just under half of respondents said they felt nervous requesting time off from their employer, and more than three in four workers wished their workplace's culture "placed a stronger emphasis on the value of taking regular breaks and utilizing paid time off."

While study data on PTO discouragement is scarce, Verma says, parallels might be drawn with the decades-old fight for parental leave free from stigma, which has seen more research attention.

"People who [took parental leave] were seen by the employer as being not-so career-focused," he said. "There is a genuine need for you to take time off, and if you are not taking it off, you had better have a very good reason."

As for Canadian workers, respondents to the 2022 Maru survey were asked how many extra hours they typically worked in order to prepare for and recover from a one-week vacation. On average, surveyed Canadians worked 11.7 hours outside of their normal schedules to make up for their time off, kicking back just shy of one and a half of the five paid days off provided in the example scenario.

A tale as old as time off

But as office culture's latest neologism joins the ranks of "quiet quitting," "bare-minimum Monday" and "the Great Resignation," it can be instructive to remember that the fundamental elements of quiet vacationing -- underutilized benefits, the stresses of professional life and just plain not working while on the clock -- are hardly brand-new.

According to surveys commissioned by travel website Expedia, roughly half or more of workers globally have reported feeling "vacation deprived" for the past decade, reaching a high of 62 per cent in 2023 that matched the rate 10 years prior. Canadians, meanwhile, left an average of two of their 19 allotted days off on the table in 2022 and 68 per cent reported they wished their employer would alter their time off policy.

 

More broadly, Statistics Canada (StatCan) data collected last April shows an estimated four million Canadians experiencing high or very high levels of workplace stress; roughly one in five of the country's working population. Among the top stressors cited were heavy workloads, work-life balance and long or overtime hours.

Similar proportions were found in StatCan surveys in 2010, at 27 per cent of working adults reporting very stressful daily lives, and in 1994 and 2000, with overlong hours and demanding to-do lists ranking highest among sources of workers' anxieties.

"New technologies such as the Internet and e-mail have 'permanently wired employees to their jobs,'" reads a 2003 report on the latter set of surveys.

Verma notes that some governments have pushed back against digital-era demands with 'right to disconnect' laws, but the ability to protect workers' off-hours time has its limits.

"You cannot use this to fire someone, or to layoff, and cite the fact that they took too long to respond to a Friday-night email," he said. "Employers may still hold that against you in something like promotions, because this may not be a documented reason; it may just be at the back of their minds."

When it comes to those informal factors like passing over for promotions or workplace hooky, though, it can cut both ways, and has for a very long time.

Despite the popular image of work-shy millennials and generation Zers sneaking out of their shifts in protest, a trip through the archives shows this survey insight from Illinois-based CCH Incorporated, smack in the middle of Generation X's young-professional era:

"While people were calling in at the last minute slightly less often than last year, only 21 percent were doing so because they were ill," a September 1999 release reads.

"Quickly gaining as reasons for unscheduled absences were Stress and Entitlement Mentality, each now accounting for 19 percent of all unscheduled absences. Of particular concern is Stress, which has seen a 316-percent increase as a reason for absenteeism since 1995."

The survey firm had a pessimistic view of what was then to come.

"The reasons why employees aren’t showing up for work are more troubling than ever," it reads. "And, as workers clearly signal distress, employers have been slow to heed the warning signs." 

For more information on methodology on the surveys mentioned in this story, please follow the hyperlinks included to the original releases for each.

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