The latest sign of America's broken work culture: 'quiet vacationing'

Who among us has not done a little fibbing at work? A little résumé embellishment here, a fake dental appointment there. Now people are taking full-blown holidays while on the job as part of a trend that's been called "quiet vacationing."

There's no set definition of quiet vacationing, and it can encompass a variety of behaviors — traveling to a faraway place and not saying anything while still getting your work in, or not working but keeping your mouse moving to appear as if you're online in hopes that no one will notice your drop in productivity.

On the one hand, this sounds like an awesome, novel possibility brought about by the rise of remote work. Responding to the 10th email of the day while sipping a margarita on the beach sounds a lot nicer than doing it from an office desk as a coworker nearby munches loudly on their sad salad. If work gets slow in the summer, there's no good reason to sit and stare at your computer.

On the other hand, the idea that people are under so much pressure at work that they feel they can't take true disconnect-from-everything time off or even tell their boss they're working out of town for a bit is deeply depressing. It's a stark reminder of how broken American work culture is, just in time for summer.

"It may be a question of just psychological safety, or lack thereof, that the employee doesn't feel like they can openly have a conversation with their manager about taking real time off," said Rebecca Zucker, an executive coach and the founding partner of Next Step Partners, a leadership consultancy. "We're all big boys and girls, and it's a question of not where we're working or when we're working, in terms of the hours we're working, but are we doing what we need to get done."

The whole quiet-vacationing discourse got kicked up by a recent Harris Poll survey on out-of-office culture. It found that 28% of workers said they'd taken time off work without telling their bosses — basically, they're out of the office, but not "officially." Millennials in particular have picked up on the practice, with 37% saying they'd dipped out of work on the sly.

It's not that these workers are unhappy with the vacation their companies offer: 83% of respondents said they were satisfied with their company's paid-time-off policy. The issue seems to be that employees don't feel like they can actually use the time off they're given. Eight in 10 workers said they didn't use the maximum amount of PTO allowed; some said they felt pressure to always be available, while others cited a heavy workload as their reason. Almost half said they got nervous about requesting time away, and three-quarters said they wished their workplace culture put more value on taking breaks. Workers reported being tricky about the whole thing, too: About a third said they moved their mouse to make it look like they were online, and about the same share said they scheduled messages outside work hours to give the impression that they were working overtime.

The problem isn't really that people are working from elsewhere, especially if it's not hurting their productivity. The greater issue is what it signifies about their relationship with work and the incentives that have been fostered at their companies. People feeling like they have to be sneaky about their whereabouts is not a positive sign, nor is feeling like the only way to disconnect is to remain half plugged in.

The people taking vacations on the sly may be at organizations that are likelier to reward overworkers, said Malissa Clark, an associate professor and the head of the Healthy Work Lab at the University of Georgia. In turn, those quiet vacations may perversely reinforce the always-on culture, even when always being on isn't necessary or leading to better business results. Clark, who also wrote the book "Never Not Working: Why the Always-On Culture Is Bad for Business — and How to Fix It," pointed to 2015 research looking at how some men at a consulting firm were able to pull back from work while pretending to still put in 80-hour weeks. Their managers couldn't tell the difference, and they were rewarded for giving off the impression that they were workaholics, whereas men who were up front about needing to downshift were penalized.

"That's why there's this pressure for people to constantly be working and feel like if they take a step back they'll be left behind, because that's a very real thing," Clark said. "Apparently, that's what a lot of organizations reward."

Pretending to work when you're not or acting like you're putting in more hours than you do is not a new phenomenon. Zucker recalled working years ago at an investment bank where men would leave their suit jackets on the backs of their chairs after hours so people would think they were still somewhere in the office. But technology does make this behavior easier. The ability to connect from anywhere is a double-edged sword: Sure, it's nice to be able to answer an email on a midday walk or work from a relative's house over the holidays, but it sucks to know your boss knows that you saw that 10 p.m. Slack message pop up on your phone.

This is a societal problem and one that is uniquely American. We're told to go, go, go, made to feel like we can never get off the treadmill for even a second, lest we fall behind or give the impression that we're not trying hard. We often don't see taking time off as necessary and well deserved but as a sign of laziness and lack of work ethic. People aren't told to work to live; they're told to live to work.

Some of the fundamentals underlying quiet vacationing are positive. We live in an era where a lot of people can work from wherever and have more flexibility to achieve a better work-life balance. The rub is the sneakiness of it all. It would be much better if we were talking about, say, "loud working from anywhere for a month," or whatever you'd want to call it. (Or we could stop coining terms for work trends, the true dream.) It should be OK to have a conversation with your manager about spending a few days in the mountains or on the beach and, as long as the WiFi is decent, fulfilling your capitalist soldier duties.

Clark said this trend may make employers even more eager to force workers back to the office. Managers don't always love the idea that they don't know where their employees are, and they have the (often false) impression that being out of sight means not working.

Working from elsewhere does not erase the need for an actual vacation. There's all sorts of research indicating that time off improves mental and physical health, reduces stress, and boosts productivity, among other benefits. Even planning a vacation makes people happier. People need to psychologically detach from work in order to relax and recover.

"By always feeling like you have to stay connected, you never recover from work," Clark said. "And so it's like you're constantly running a marathon, but then you never take a break, and what is it going to do? It's going to wear your body down slowly, gradually, to the point where you hit a wall. And then all of a sudden you're burnt out."

If you're quiet vacationing and your boss doesn't know, good for you, I guess. But it would probably be better if you could be honest about where you are and what you're doing. And none of this scraps the need for an actual vacation. Regardless of how up front (or not) employees are, at the end of the day, American work culture is the bad guy here. The toxicity of hustle culture is the real problem, not the person who's low-key working from a cabin in the woods or the coworker who said screw it and is taking three weeks off.

Emily Stewart is a senior correspondent at Business Insider, writing about business and the economy.

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