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Why You’re Reading Work Emails Right Now

First, the good news: More Americans are taking advantage of the vacation time granted to them by their employers. The bad news: They’re spending more of that supposedly off-the-clock time working.

A new annual report from the U.S. Travel Association found that, after dropping to an all-time low of 16 days in 2014, the average American worker took 16.8 vacation days in 2016, up from 16.2 days last year.

Fun summer vacation destinations that won't break the bank 3:38

The reversal is a good sign, according to Katie Denis, the report’s author and senior director of Project: Time Off. “This year we felt like it was more substantial,” she said.

Still, she added, American workers forfeited 206 million vacation days last year. That was an 8 percent drop from 2015, however. “I think there’s greater awareness of the importance of vacation,” Denis said.

Or it could be that we’re taking more vacation days because we’ve simply come to think of “vacation” as working poolside at a resort rather than in the office. A new survey from Glassdoor.com found that although 91 percent of workers took at least some vacation time in the last year — up from 85 percent three years ago — about two-thirds of those people say they work during vacation, an increase of five percentage points over that same time frame.

“Some employers and managers have also gotten used to reaching out to their employees at all hours. That’s a pretty bad way to work,” said Scott Dobroski, community expert at Glassdoor.

Are We Afraid of Vacations?

Dobroski said it would benefit companies more if they actively encouraged workers to step back and take a real break. “More employers need to remind their employees that vacation time is valued… you need to use it,” he said. “They will come back more productive, re-energized, more creative.”

But a new survey from OfficeTeam, a Robert Half company, indicates that a disconnect remains between the lip service companies pay to the value of vacation and the unspoken cultural codes that prevent many workers from using their time off.

Roughly 40 percent of workers surveyed by Robert Half said flexible schedules were the top summertime perk they would like, but a parallel survey of HR managers found that the number of companies offering this dropped by 13 percentage points over five years.

Daryl Pigat, division director at OfficeTeam, suggested one reason behind this could be that flexibility is integrated into more companies’ year-round scheduling practices today. But he also said the survey results — which showed that companies have sharply pulled back on other summertime perks like company picnics, relaxed dress codes and early-dismissal Fridays — could indicate a shift back to a more buttoned-up work environment.

“There could be a trend towards bringing back a little more formality to the workplace,” he said. “I think we’re at a tipping point... I definitely see where companies are pulling back a little bit.”

What’s more, experts say another phenomenon that could be making Americans’ vacation habits look artificially rosy is the growth of “unlimited” vacation, popularized by tech companies like LinkedIn and Netflix.

“The rising trend is this theme of unlimited vacation. It’s certainly crossing boundaries into other industries now,” Dobroski said.

While this might sound good in theory, HR pros say it can actually wind up being more advantageous for the employer. Dobroski pointed out that employees with an unlimited policy might no longer track their vacation days, making them less likely to realize if they’re not taking it.

There’s also a significant financial benefit for companies, said Dave Carvajal, CEO of a technology-focused recruiting firm. For fast-paced and competitive sectors like tech start-ups where turnover can be high, unlimited vacation can give companies a legal way around paying as much as $20,000 or $30,000 in unused vacation pay to departing highly paid workers.

“On the face of it, it seems very appealing, it has a very positive sheen on it. Most employees don’t actually realize or understand that’s the driving motivation behind it,” he said.

The Office Is in Our Pocket

Without a culture that encourages people to take time off, people are too stressed about the work they leave behind to really enjoy their vacations. According to a new survey by Wyndham Vacation Rentals, 36 percent of respondents said they were stressed about falling behind at work while planning for a vacation, and 31 percent said it took until at least the second day of vacation for them to unwind.

“If you have a smartphone, your office is still in your pocket. Without proper preparation, it can be very stressful,” Denis said.

OfficeTeam found that around a third of HR managers complain that employees don’t do a good job planning ahead for summer vacations, and industry experts say laying the groundwork for work coverage before you go is the best proactive step employees can take to keep work from encroaching on vacation.

“I think a lot of it is planning. Planning is by far the easiest and best thing you can do,” Denis said.

“It’s all about planning ahead, and I don’t mean one day in advance. You should be thinking about this two weeks in advance,” Dobroski said.

That can be easier said than done, though. Denis said the new Project: Time Off survey found that people who planned ahead for their absence were both more likely to take a vacation and happier overall, but that people working for companies that tacitly or expressly frown on taking time off were less likely to broach the subject of how their responsibilities are covered while they were out of the office — so they wound up being the ones fielding emails or participating in conference calls during their vacation.

“During the recession, companies asked people to do more with less, and coming out of the recession, that didn’t really change,” Denis said. “I’d say there’s a lot of lingering workload pressures.”

“Over the past few years, we’ve transitioned into a society of workers that is always on,” Carvajal said. “It’s the first thing people do when they wake up, they check their phone,” he said.