April 21, 2021
From the psychological impact of working remotely to navigating a part-time office setup, there’s plenty of new challenges to navigate nowadays. These challenges have some workers reaching a tipping point. They’re asking themselves (and their managers), what better way to deal with the last year of unwelcome change than to check out?
As the weather warms up, vaccines are doled out, and school days inch closer to summer vacation, an unseen number of workers are finding time to take off. There’s also growing obstinance to being tied to a desk in a building or even a desk at home. A recent survey reported 1/3 of employees saying they would be ready to quit their current job if they were forced to return to an office full-time. Imagine trying to push that point with your boss two years ago…
What we’re observing is not just a petulant resistance to going back to work, instead, it’s a reaction from a workforce that to researchers makes a ton of sense. It’s the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction.
In February 2021, time-off requests on the HR platform Zenefits were down 26 percent from the year before, in line with what the company has seen since July 2020. Americans are notorious for being bad at taking time off compared to other industrialized countries, but the last 12 months reached an all-time low. As we know, this was due to travel restrictions, mandatory quarantine, and a fear of contracting Covid-19.
As a result people stayed at home and on the ball. An August 2020 survey found that 58 percent of US workers reported feeling burned out, an increase of almost 15 percent since March, while another survey found that 60 percent of people felt they had been working more hours since restrictions came into place early last year.
Now naturally, as the world opens up, workers have a choice to make. Keep grinding for 10-12 hours a day from the couch or a combination of the home and office space, or, take a well-deserved vacation. As the pendulum swings in the other direction, searches for summer travel have been rising as much as 27 percent every week since early March (on Kayak.com). Even as many international destinations remain out-of-bounds for Americans, Mexico is an accessible, semi-exotic place, far from the grind of the “new norm.” Priceline.com reported a rise in reservations for trips there up 230 percent from 2019.
Needless to say, the unused time-off collected from last year is getting cashed in big time. For knowledge workers especially, the pandemic in many industries has been a disruption of workplace, connection, and communication, not necessarily layoffs and business closures like lower-wage workers have seen in retail, entertainment, and the food industry.
The need to unplug in such high numbers points to something unique in how we work today. We’ve landed in what seems like two distinct camps: those with an all-or-nothing relationship to their job, and those with a more fluid, work-and-play mentality.
A lack of routine and structure, distraction from children, family, and roommates, constant anxieties about the spread of the virus, and uncertainty around the future have made working productively with focus and efficiency very challenging. Dr. Anna Katharina Schaffner, author of Exhaustion: A History (Columbia University Press) said in an interview with Vogue in December 2020, “When external structures fall away, we are in danger of thinking we should work all the time, feeling guilty if we cannot do so,” she says. “Work then begins to bleed into our days and even nights, eroding any opportunity for recharging.”
On the other hand, Priceline CEO Brett Keller told The Atlantic in April 2021 that of all the summer spikes playing out on Priceline, the biggest is a 165 percent bump in bundled flight-and hotel bookings compared with summer 2019, a trend that he says is likely driven by workers hunting for the best deals on extended stays during which they can vacation and work. As we well know, many of us can now log on from anywhere, so why not log in from a pool deck in Miami?
“You’re going to have a situation where some people are going to say, Thank God I can go on vacation, and others will say, Thank God I can go back to work,” said Jamie McCallum, a Middlebury College sociologist and the author of Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock-Work Is Killing the American Dream.
So, is one solution better or healthier than the other? And how can business owners and team leaders address the need to disconnect all while staying extremely connected?
Writer for the Harvard Political Review, Jacob Blair says that our “affair” with work is not a new one and this polarized response is the result of decades of reinforced identity in our work. Technology, he says, for Americans has meant an even stronger affair and more time dedicated to our desks while in other developed countries, technology has reduced the number of hours worked per week drastically. All the pandemic did was bring light to a problem we already had with our work.
“It is vital that we are cautious as our affair with technology continues,” he says. “Our mental health depends on our ability to parse out work and life. At present, with nowhere to go and no one to see but a calendar full of meetings, it seems the two have become one. This result is a product of our workism mindset before the quarantine was ever a thought. We must be more careful in walking the line between innovation and overwork…”
As our CEO, Patrick Braswell said in a recent video on employee engagement, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. A lot of how a leader moves forward with their people has to do with the unique needs and values of the business. The one core truth that might inform both camps—those strung out on email notifications and those checking into an Airbnb for a 10-day stint—is that mental health matters and we all need boundaries.
Professor Adam Grant wrote about a possible solution in a recent New York Times article about this unhealthy middle ground that we’re all trying to navigate by either working while we vacation or working non-stop. He identifies this behavior as “languishing.”
“While finding new challenges, enjoyable experiences and meaningful work are all possible remedies to languishing, it’s hard to find flow when you can’t focus. This was a problem long before the pandemic, when people were habitually checking email 74 times a day and switching tasks every 10 minutes… Fragmented attention is an enemy of engagement and excellence. In a group of 100 people, only two or three will even be capable of driving and memorizing information at the same time without their performance suffering on one or both tasks. Computers may be made for parallel processing, but humans are better off serial processing… That means we need to set boundaries… The lesson of this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard. It clears out constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.”
So maybe our solution is in compartmentalizing, just like we did when we turned off the light and walked out of the office building every day. The time on the beach should be the time on the beach while the to-do list says on the desk, hundreds of miles away, and gets all our attention when we’re back in action. There’s something powerful for both people and our overall productivity when we can unplug for a time, so we keep ourselves from becoming unhinged.