Employees decorating Christmas tree with workplace items including emails and files
Collaboration

Workers are struggling to disconnect during the holidays. Here’s how managers can help

Slack’s Holiday Season Survey finds workers of all ages are choosing work presence over presents. Digital infrastructure like Slack can help.

Par l’équipe Slack12 décembre 2022Illustration par Robert Samuel Hanson

As employees around the country get excited for the holiday break, there is an inherent understanding that work will still be done and that work messages will inevitably be checked. Why? Seventy-one percent of workers say they are generally available for work outside work hours. And that doesn’t change with the holidays: 66% of workers note they will still be available to work even when they have time off.

These are the results of a new study of more than 2,000 workers (remote, hybrid and in-office) in the U.S., which was conducted by the opinion research institute YouGov on behalf of Slack. The “Slack Holiday Season Survey” examines the availability of U.S. employees during the holidays, the pressures keeping them working and what employers can improve to encourage healthy boundaries.

60% of employees plan to leave work notifications on during the holidays

It’s no wonder that more than one-third (40%) of respondents note it takes them one to three days to switch off during the holidays: One in two people (52%) feel stressed and pressured by the expectation to be constantly available for work, and 60% of people plan to leave work notifications on during the holidays. Even among respondents who say they are not available for work during the holidays, more than four in 10 (43%) take a look at their work-related messages at least once a day, if not more.

Ana Martinez, Slack’s Director of Engineering

“People have a tendency to keep checking email and Slack out of fear of missing out. In my team, we share our phone numbers with the expectation that if anything urgent comes up, we will let each other know.”

Ana MartinezDirector of Engineering, Slack

“At Alula, we have found that companywide rest and restoration shutdowns have been critical to full-person reset for our teams,” says Liya Shuster-Bier, CEO of Alula, an online marketplace of products that help current and former cancer patients manage symptoms of their treatment. “This has taken the form of companywide four-day weekends during summer holidays, companywide closure during the last week of August and last week of December. We’ve found that when everyone is dedicated, resting at the same time, folks actually feel the permission to genuinely unplug.”

Where does the pressure come from? The expectations of managers and leadership

The pressure to be working during the holiday break may come from the top down: Almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents in a leadership role note they expect their employees to be available because they will be available, 27% expect their employees to be available at all times during the holidays and only one in 10 (10%) say they don’t expect their employees to work at all. Yikes!

“One of the most important things employers can do is model work-life balance and healthy approaches to PTO for their employees. When we respond to messages during PTO we are, whether we like it or not, sending a message that we expect the same from our employees.”

Ana MartinezDirector of Engineering , Slack

While 72% of managers/employers say they encourage employees to switch off during the holidays, and 70% say they worry about employee burnout, there seems to be a disconnect because 68% of employees admit they have trouble switching off/stepping away from work. The survey findings make it clear that those in leadership positions should think twice before sending a DM to someone for something “quick” that could wait.

“After surviving a cancer diagnosis, I learned to rewrite unhealthy habits I inherited from the corporate grind, like sacrificing sleep, being stressed during holidays and working through the night,” says Shuster-Bier. “And I wanted our policies at Alula to reflect clear boundaries between work and life. Seemingly small habits like setting a Slack status to show that you’re picking up your child from day care or scheduling a note for a 9 a.m. send time support our value of human being, not human doing.”

Learned behaviors are shifting among generations

The data also revealed a stark difference between generations, specifically between Gen Z/Millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers, when it comes to their ability to sign off during the holidays. Seventy-three percent of employees aged 18 to 34 said they’ll be available during the holidays as they find it hard to switch off versus only 37% of employees aged 55-plus. Eighty-one percent of employees aged 18 to 24 say they’ll be available during the holidays due to guilt versus merely 13% of employees aged 55-plus.

“It is important to communicate (and reiterate) to new employees that the expectation is that they fully disconnect during vacation,” says Martinez. “New employees tend to feel more nervous and feel extra pressure to be present during vacation time.” And for those who may wonder how to address coworkers who still work and send notifications over the holidays, Martinez recommends that “when you catch employees responding to messages during PTO, call it out in a respectful and playful way. This will send the message, not only to the individual but to the team, that the behavior is heavily discouraged.”

Calroy Health Sciences, a dietary supplement company that develops science-backed cardiovascular support products for health-care professionals, was remote-first from day one—well before the pandemic forced many companies to adopt digital-first strategies. “Calroy gives our teams unlimited PTO—and we mean it,” says Andie Crosby, president of Calroy. “We make sure everyone takes at least three weeks off a year, and we shut down for a companywide holiday between Christmas and New Year’s.”

Andie Crosby, president of Calroy

“We’ve empowered our small team to figure out how to set up our digital infrastructure in Slack and throughout our tech stack to make this global holiday a success while also serving our customers if they need us during this week.”

Andie CrosbyPresident, Calroy

Digital headquarters can be a tool to help employees switch off effectively

More than two-thirds of respondents (70%) say their digital infrastructure—the apps and software they use at work—are helpful in achieving a better work-life balance.

“We’ve never had an office: Slack is our digital HQ,” explains Crosby. “It’s how we build culture, stay productive, accomplish our goals and promote a healthy work-life balance. Instead of stopping by someone’s office, our team uses huddles to “pop in” and have a quick chat. We also have channels dedicated to fun things like vacation photos, comments of appreciation for teamwork and collaboration, and to talk about and celebrate our lives outside of work. It helps us connect as humans and coworkers.”

The digital infrastructure also gives 68% of respondents the security to effectively switch off during vacation. Another advantage for more than seven in 10 (71%) respondents: The digital infrastructure at work makes it easier to show superiors, colleagues and customers that they are on vacation and do not want to be disturbed. Custom statuses are a great way to succinctly share if you’re on PTO and wish not to be disturbed, and over half (57%) of employees plan to use a status to set expectations about their availability to work.

“At Slack, we’re always looking for ways to provide flexible tools that fit anyone’s work style, whether they are in the office or remote. And those tools should absolutely be used to set boundaries and help employees manage their vacation time. We need to rest and recharge so that we can come back to our projects with renewed passion, motivation and energy.”

Ana MartinezDirector of Engineering, Slack

Using tools like Slack to promote healthy work-life boundaries and tools for creating space is an important step in managing and retaining happy and engaged employees. Over two-thirds (69%) of survey takers choose to work at a company with the flexible digital infrastructure and vacation policies that allow them to work how and when they want.

“We advise employees to block margin times in their work calendars and explicitly encourage them not to work on holidays or during vacation,” says Kerstin Rothermel, VP People at Bolt, one of the leading European providers of sustainable mobility solutions. “When it comes to collaboration, we rely on openness and transparency, for instance, through shared documents, which allow vacation replacements to take over the respective tasks more easily and without questions. For such cases, tools like Slack are very helpful. My personal tip: Always block half a day before and after vacation to take care of the most important things in peace and, ideally, plan those two margin days meeting-free.”

Top results at a glance:

  • 59% of those who work in an office said they struggled with switching off during time off, compared to remote (49%) and hybrid (46%) workers.
  • 63% of respondents 18 to 34 said they felt burned out during time off, with the next highest groups being 35 to 44 (64%), 25 to 34 (56%), and the lowest being 45 to 54 (52%) and 55-plus (39%).
  • 76% of employees aged 18 to 34 plan to sign on during the holidays because they have too much work to do to miss days versus 37% of employees aged 55-plus.
  • More than four in 10 (42%) respondents say they do not provide coworkers with advice on how to switch off effectively during PTO, showing that management needs to make a concerted effort to do so.

How does it compare to how employees felt last year?

  • Over half of all survey respondents (55%) were contacted during the holidays by their manager on a work issue last year, even though they were on vacation.
  • 53% of people had to work during the holidays even though they had time off.
  • And half of survey takers (55%) struggled to effectively switch off during the holidays while around the same number (52%) felt burnout during the holidays while having time off.

How does the U.S. fare compared to Germany, the U.K. and Australia? Not well!

  • Of respondents that will be available for work during the holidays, all countries feel almost equally that their internal drive is a motivating factor to do so (GR: 77%, U.S.: 77%, U.K.: 62%, AU: 78%). However, while internal pressures are the same, they differ vastly when it comes to external pressures. Sixty-six percent of Americans and 72% of Australians will be available because their employer expects it while only 48% of Germans and 39% of U.K. citizens feel the same.
  • U.S. respondents felt the most guilty about taking a break. Sixty-three percent of those in the U.S. noted they will be available during the holidays because they feel guilty seeing others work while only 36% of Germans and 22% of those in the U.K. agree.
  • Of respondents who will not be available for work during the holidays, 71% of Germans, 64% of those in the U.K and 55% of Australians note they do not check work-related messages at all, while only 37% of Americans said the same.
  • U.S. respondents (60%) are doubly likely than German respondents (30%) to leave work notifications on during the holidays.

About the survey: The “Holiday Season Survey” 2022 was commissioned by the technology company Slack and conducted by the opinion research institute YouGov. The survey is based on online interviews with 2,004 office workers from the United States in the period from November 21, 2022, to November 28, 2022.

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