eWhen you were a kid, vacations were dictated by the school calendar. Everyone recalls counting the days until winter break, spring break, and the ultimate break of them all — summer vacation. Those breaks helped you get through stressful studies and provided critical time to rejuvenate. But when you get into the work world, everything changes.

Although research consistently shows the health benefits of taking vacation time, like lower stress, better mental health, and improved focus, workers aren’t taking their breaks. One study found that for the first time in recorded history, more than half of Americans (55%) left vacation days unused — over 658 million days.

While that may sound like more work is getting done, Dr. Leah Weiss, author of “How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind” and professor at Stanford University, points out:

“We’re under the misguided presumption that more work leads to more productivity when the opposite is actually true — chronic stress eats away at any chance for a productive workplace, or high employee engagement. Chronic stress undermines the culture and leads to fatigue, anxiety, and confusion about priorities.” 

Top companies know that breaks are critical to productivity. However, the question remains: Why aren’t employees taking their paid vacation days? To tackle this question, our researchers at Wrike explored this hypothesis:

Could the reason employees aren’t taking vacation time to relieve stress be the stress of taking a vacation?

In order to get to the bottom of this, Wrike commissioned a survey to understand the importance of taking mental breaks by measuring stress levels before and after vacation. We also explored how tools like collaboration software can prepare employees for vacation so they’re confident and at ease about leaving work at work. Here are the findings from 1,700+ responses of U.S. Wrike users.

But first, the dangers of stress in the workplace...

In our eBook The Stress Epidemic, we learned that about one-third of employees from companies with over $51 million in revenue say they deal with “high to unsustainably high stress” every day. Additionally, 11% of employees from companies with over $51 million in annual revenue report stress from work negatively impacts their home life every day.

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This perpetual impact on home life causes employees from successful companies to head for the hills. Of the 11% who say that work negatively impacts their home life every day, 77.5% report having looked for another job as a result of stress, and nearly half have actually quit their job. 

So why don’t these stressed employees take a break? According to Scott Dobroski, career trends analyst at Glassdoor, the top employee vacation fears include falling behind on work (34%) and believing no one else can do the work while they’re out (30%). So it becomes a never-ending cycle. The workload keeps you from being able to take a vacation to recharge. Because you can’t recharge, your productivity suffers, which triggers more stress. That stress makes it more challenging to manage your workload. 

To further fuel this vicious cycle, many stressed employees don’t realize that by not taking a break, they’re hurting their career. One study found that employees who took fewer than 10 of their vacation days per year had a 34.6% likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus in a 3-year period of time. Meanwhile, people who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65.4% chance of receiving a raise or bonus. The reality is, taking a vacation not only leads to less stress but more money and success.

Our survey results: stress, vacations, and you

Stress before vacation

When asked to gauge pre-vacation stress levels, all of the surveyed generations reported being the most stressed before a vacation. 79% of respondents claimed they are slightly or very stressed pre-vacation. 

This makes sense! Consider the last time you took a vacation. You take on extra work to ensure you’re ahead of schedule, set up contingencies for those taking over, and the list goes on. In our study, 27% of male and 34% of female respondents said they prepare colleagues and get all their work done prior to vacation to minimize the impact of their absence. On top of this, anticipating and preparing for travel is another layer of stress.

79% of respondents claimed they are slightly or very stressed pre-vacation.

The biggest difference between men and women was in the amount of stress experienced pre-vacation. Women reported being more stressed than men before leaving for the office. In our 2018 survey exploring how workers disconnect during vacations, we discovered a similar trend — the most stress was felt leading up to vacation, and women experienced more stress than men.

This survey unearthed some possibilities to help explain this disparity. While men planned to take more consecutive vacation days than women, men also expected to work while on vacation. 40% of men said they intended to work versus 30% of women. For many, the choice to work during vacation comes down to company culture and personal decision. While working on vacation may relieve some of the stress pre and post, is it simply replaced by stress during vacation?

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Stress during vacation

A recent Work and Well-Being Survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) sought the answers. They found that 21% of U.S. adults felt stressed during their time off, and 28% worked more than they thought they would on vacation. 

Inc.com recently referenced this statistic from our 2018 vacation survey: One-third of respondents expect to work during their vacation and say they spend a few minutes forwarding time-sensitive messages (22%) or answering calls or emails from their boss (24%). 

If you're constantly worrying about how to check work email from home while vacationing, there's a problem. While checking in may sound innocent enough, it actually negates the benefits of taking a vacation — and the onus isn’t entirely on workers. In our study, we found that millennials feel most guilty about taking vacations, are most likely to work on vacations, and are most likely to be influenced by their bosses than older generations. 

Bosses and company leaders, it’s up to you to create a culture that allows employees to enjoy vacations by setting boundaries. When employees are on vacation, set the expectation that they are not to be working and don’t reach out to them. When you take a vacation, lead by example and disconnect.

Stress after vacation

Forbes recently highlighted a study showing that employees are able to sleep better and are in a better mood after vacations — even months after their return. Another study demonstrated that vacations, especially those taken in warmer climates, resulted in increased productivity and less exhaustion for employees.

When we asked our respondents to measure their stress coming back to work after a vacation, their answers echo the findings of this study. 

  • 71% of Gen Z respondents felt slightly or no stress coming back to work after vacation
  • 50% of millennial respondents felt slightly or no stress coming back to work after vacation
  • 55% of Gen X respondents felt slightly or no stress coming back to work after vacation
  • 67% of baby boomer respondents felt slightly or no stress coming back to work after vacation

However, flipping the numbers around, we can read the results a little differently:

  • 29% of Gen Z respondents felt very or extremely stressed coming back to work after vacation
  • 50% of millennial respondents felt very or extremely stressed coming back to work after vacation
  • 44% of Gen X respondents felt very or extremely stressed coming back to work after vacation
  • 32% of baby boomer respondents felt very or extremely stressed coming back to work after vacation

If 50%, 44%, 32%, or even 29% of your employees are coming back to work and feeling stressed, they aren’t reaping those benefits like increased energy, focus, and productivity. Instead, you have workers behind, flustered, disengaged, and more. The truth is, a poor post-vacation process can mean up to 50% of your workforce isn't working on an optimized level. That’s not good for morale or your bottom line.

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In order to maximize the benefits of vacation, teams and leaders need to be able to limit the stress during each phase of the vacation cycle — before, during, and after.

5 Ways to vacation the Wrike way

Want to take the stress out of the vacation experience for your team? Wrike client Greg Parris, Project Management leader for MINDBODY, shares how his team leverages Wrike to help their managers and teams prepare for stress-free vacations:

"I used to spend hours working on coverage plans before vacation. Collecting email threads, forwarding meeting invites, sharing folders, files and links…trying to anticipate every single piece of information my team and clients might need while I was away. Now Wrike pretty much does all that for me. I share dashboards and reports to ensure everyone has access to real-time updates on their projects. I schedule work exceptions to let my team know when I’m going to be out of the office, and reassign tasks to other team members to avoid delays.

Best of all, we track all of our project and task information through Wrike. I can relax with confidence knowing my team won’t be left in the dark if I forget to tell them something. When I’m back in the office, I run through my Wrike Inbox, and pick up right where I left off."

In our survey, the majority of respondents agreed that tools or applications like Wrike help prepare them and their teams for vacation:

  • 76% of Gen Z respondents felt their tools/applications were very or extremely helpful.
  • 60% of millennial respondents felt their tools/applications were very or extremely helpful.
  • 64% of Gen X respondents felt their tools/applications were very or extremely helpful.
  • 60% of baby boomer respondents felt their tools/applications were very or extremely helpful.

Funnily enough, the least-stressed generation coming back to work, Gen Z, was also the generation that felt most positively about their tools. What’s their secret? Here are 5 strategies to take the stress out of vacation.

#1: Create a team PTO calendar.

Within your work management tool or in Google Calendar, set up a shared calendar so everyone has visibility into each other’s planned PTO. As a team leader, make a point of viewing this calendar during your weekly call. Your team will be able to identify potential bottlenecks, stay aligned, and feel confident that projects will be taken care of while they’re away.

#2: Set a pre- and post-vacation task summarizing updates.

Whether in your tool, like Wrike, or simply through email, set a pre- and post-vacation update process. If you’re a manager, setting up the process would look something like this:

  • Pre-vacation: Have the vacationing team member note all the tasks that need attention and any contacts or resources needed.
  • Post-vacation: If you’re the manager, note back in the task or email a summary of events that occurred while the person was out and follow up as needed. If you’re a manager taking vacation, have your team members write everything they accomplished and if they need your help with anything. 

Highlights like this make it easy to quickly digest what needs attention making leaving and returning to work less stressful so you can jump right back in refreshed.

#3: Set out of office messages everywhere.

And not just in email. Make it standard on your team to note vacations in communication tools like Wrike, Slack, RingCentral, and more. This ensures that outside team members know you’re on vacation and to seek someone else.

#4: Use dashboards to visualize your workload.

In a work project management tool like Wrike, you can set up your daily dashboard, which visually represents your project statuses and due dates. Having everything in one place makes it easy to spot potential issues. Pro tip: Assign team members to tasks to watch over so they can see them on their dashboard too.

#5: Use a work management platform to get notifications in order.

Tools like Wrike make it easy to look back and catch up. Your inbox is directly connected to tasks so you get context and can see conversations chronologically. Instead of coming back to a messy pile of emails where you can miss some side conversations, Wrike keeps task communication in one place, cutting through the weeds so you can get back into your workflow fast.

It’s time to pack your bags and leave stress behind

The United States is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — a group of 37 countries that work to stimulate economies and world trade — that does not mandate paid vacation. That means U.S. employees and companies need to take responsibility and prioritize vacations. Leaders need to let employees know that everything will be okay while they are gone and enforce unplugging. Wrike’s Vice President of People Operations Megan Barbier shares:

“Stress is part of our daily lives, but with the right tools and team structures, organizations can have more influence than they think in how they help employees prepare for, take, and return from a break from work. Businesses should pull in all the resources they can to make the experience of taking vacation easier and less stressful for employees — and creating alignment and visibility on digital work is a key way to help do that.”

What are some of the ways your company encourages and empowers you to take a vacation? We want to hear from you! 

Let us know in the comments below and tag your vacation photos with the hashtag #VacayDoneWrike on LinkedIn or Instagram.