Why you shouldn’t check your email on vacation

Debunking every possible reason you may have to avoid taking an actual breather on vacation


This post, written by James Cowan, first appeared at Canadian Business.

It’s five minutes until vacation. The to-do list is done, the out-of-office notification activated and the big clients handed to a colleague for babysitting. Sitting with this trusted comrade for a last review, you speak a single sentence, formed from a mix of compassion and anxiety. You want to be helpful; you also want to ensure that nobody screws up while you’re lounging on the dock. And so, you say a stupid thing: “I’ll be checking email while I’m gone.”

Look, I’m not blaming you—I’ve done it myself. Indeed, 40 per cent of Canadians peruse their inboxes while on vacation, according to a 2015 survey by HR firm Randstad. Sixty per cent say there’s no expectation from their boss that they’ll be available, so this isn’t about work intruding on our personal time. If anything, the trend runs the other way, with precedent-setting firms like LinkedIn and Netflix now offering unlimited vacation to staff. Companies increasingly recognize a well-rested worker is a productive one. Yet we still insist on glaring at our smartphones when we should be staring at the lake.

Every excuse for this behaviour fails under scrutiny. “I find it more stressful to not know what’s happening at work.” The very act of checking email hikes our heart rate and stress level, according to University of California researchers. Take it away for five days and test subjects become objectively calmer.

“But I’ll just be buried by work when I get back.” This might be true for the first few days, but time off now will mean better output in the weeks to come. Workers at New Century Global, a New York insurance firm, were 13% more accurate in their work when reminded to take breaks.

“But I’m angling for a promotion.” Half-hearted, fuzzy-headed emails likely won’t help with that—but taking a real breather just might. More than three-quarters of HR managers believe vacation time leads to improved job performance and satisfaction. Further, distance from the day-to-day can provide new insights. As John Donahoe, the chairman of PayPal, once wrote: “Without a constant barrage of work issues to respond to, I find that my mind calms down and my intuition begins to come alive.” Virgin founder Richard Branson recommends taking a notebook—not a smartphone—to capture any bright ideas.

“But I don’t want to leave my team to deal with my problems.” Out of all the reasons that people feel compelled to stay connected, this is the most troublesome. It casts checking email as a commitment to teamwork. But for senior managers in particular, it’s a sign of failure if your team can’t survive while you’re away. “If you’ve done your job right, you’ve hired the right senior leaders and given them the direction and resources to do that work well,” Jim Moffatt, the head of Deloitte’s consulting arm, wrote. “If you didn’t do that by the time you got on the plane for your vacation, a few emails from the beach or the links won’t do the trick.”

Moffatt says, “I now view the vacation as more than a pause. It’s a test.” By staying connected, you fail before it even starts.

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