AMERICA’S ALARMING (LACK OF) WORK-LIFE BALANCE

More than ever, US employees are working on vacation, checking their inboxes when off the clock, and sacrificing their downtime — and it's taking a mental toll.
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Once renowned as the land of the free, America has become the land of the fatigued. The average American toils for an extra 400 hours annually compared to their counterparts in other developed nations. So what’s the reward for such unwavering commitment to their jobs? More work and additional demands. Today, even a mere week of freedom is a luxury that eludes most Americans.

What little remains of America’s work-life balance faces yet further erosion. Just as we started to recover from the mentally-draining pandemic, a new year presented us with a new set of challenges: soaring living costs, exorbitant interest rates, and mass layoffs as employers grappled with surging expenses.

With the economy in despair, job losses mounting, and the constant bombardment of headlines warning of the dire situation we find ourselves in, we’re all in need of a break. But for many, all flights are canceled for the foreseeable future.

ELVTR surveyed 2,300 North Americans on their ability to (or not to) switch off their work phones and stop working while on vacation. The results? For most workers, taking vacation doesn’t mean disconnecting from the office entirely.

These statistics on work-life balance paint a worrying picture. Working while off the clock is already taking a toll on our emotional well-being and, with a significant portion of the workforce poised to forgo their annual leave to log in extra hours, mass burnout awaits America’s workforce.

Workers are struggling to disconnect from the modern workplace

The view might be nicer and the weather warmer, but for 46% of the American workforce, embarking on a vacation does not entail disconnecting from the workplace entirely.
The emails never stop coming, and a sense of foreboding offers a constant reminder of the unmanageable workload you will return to if you don’t keep on top of it. So you tackle a small task and, before you know it, you’ve spent the afternoon on the job at the expense of your leisure time.

Possibly due to having fewer bills to pay and mouths to feed, Gen Z finds it a little easier to ignore their inboxes, but 41% still struggle to switch off during their downtime.

For 68% of workers, it’s simply impossible to take time off without answering the odd inquiry or checking over an important document in between relaxation.

Some 27% do so because they love their job, but for 58%, it's the obligation or fear of losing it that drives them to work when they should be unwinding.

Emails are the most common annoyance for workers, with 28% bothered by their inboxes while on vacation. Logging out or blocking email notifications is easy enough, but sometimes even that doesn’t stop the barrage of messages from colleagues. Close to a third admit to being bothered by text messages and calls during their vacation with just 39% left to truly enjoy their downtime.

For one in five workers, it’s just a case of keeping on top of their emails (not that they should!). However, for some, their employers’ expectations are far more demanding.

While few employees are expected to work on vacation by their employer, more than a third of the US workforce feel there is an implicit expectation to continue performing their role — even when they’re not obligated to.

Such feelings can be explained by the current period of high financial instability. Some 70% of Americans feel stressed due to the economic climate, driving fear that refusal to go above and beyond for our employers will adversely affect them financially. The result is a shift in mentality from “working to live” towards one of “working to survive”, often at the expense of one’s health.

Working towards burnout: The mental drain of the mobile office

Almost three-quarters of Americans experience feelings of guilt when they work while on vacation. The solution may appear straightforward — simply refrain from doing so. Yet, 41% of those that abstain from working while on vacation still experience feelings of guilt.

For more than half of the American workforce, failing to keep up to date with workplace matters can result in feelings of anxiety — so unless they continue to pick up the slack, taking a mental break from the workplace can leave them feeling worse off.

Not only does mental exhaustion impede workers from performing at their best, but overworking can also lead down a slippery slope towards burnout, which can take years to recover from. For the overbearing employer, granting workers a week of reprieve from the workplace may not seem so bad in retrospect.

And it isn’t just the employee who feels the effects… It turns out that working during vacation time can also negatively impact those around you. Some 45% of workers admit their relentless workloads have caused their partners and travel companions frustration during a trip.

But a large percentage of the workforce can’t complain about their co-workers — because they’re just as guilty of causing them stress and anxiety when they’re out of the office. More than a quarter of workers admit that they have disrupted vacationing colleagues with emails, texts, calls, and sometimes even the occasional message on social media.

With most of us sharing the same frustrations, the root cause is unlikely to be an utter disregard for our colleagues’ private time, but rather because the “live to work” attitude is so deeply ingrained in the culture of the American workplace.

Stranded at home: The impact of economic uncertainty on America’s work-life balance

The frustration and anxiety that comes with taking time off work likely leave many wondering whether they would have been better off staying at home. This year, many will do just that. As inflation puts a squeeze on spending and shrinks the workforce, 55% of workers have had to take less time off or cancel their vacation plans entirely.

Even for those that aren’t feeling the effects of the economic crisis, financial pressure on employers still stands in the way of rest and relaxation. With the US labor market having lost 3.2 million jobs in the first two months of 2023, according to the US Bureau of Labor, close to a fifth of workers won’t take a break this year as understaffing forces them to take on extra workplace responsibilities instead.

While providing short-term relief for the struggles currently faced in the labor market, this approach could have long-term ramifications for the American workforce. Many workers won’t be heading off for a break this year, but with the prevalence of stress, anxiety and depression in the American workplace, a breakdown is certainly on the horizon.

Methodology

To create this study, researchers from ELVTR surveyed 2,300 workers aged over 18 years old, including 1800 from the US and 500 from Canada. The study includes all genders, ethnicities, and age groups.