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Should workers check email on holiday?

18 July 2014

Should workers check email on holiday?

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Going on holiday used to be a chance to get away from it all. 

Now, not only do 40% of employees constantly check their mobile devices, “just in case work sent something important,”1 but a staggering 90% of us also check work messages on holiday.2

We’ve developed an ‘anxious attachment’ to the workplace which means that instead of enjoying all that our holiday has to offer, a worrying number of us remain constantly preoccupied with responding to emails.

For those employers concerned about the psychological impact this is having on employees, it’s time to clarify what is and isn’t expected from staff on holiday.

What’s driving our ‘anxious attachment’?

The fact is, we only feel good about ignoring our work emails when we’re calm and confident and not feeling overloaded or threatened by the workplace. If we’re worried that we could fail, that something’s going wrong or that we’re not doing as good a job as we can, we struggle to mentally switch off.

When we’re under that sort of pressure, increased anxiety levels cause more adrenaline to pump around our bodies, encouraging us to ‘catastrophise’ by thinking the worst. The result is that most people would rather know what that email or voicemail actually says, rather than deal with the imaginary threats that come from  not knowing.

Of course, the ‘threat’ in question could be mission-critical. So mission critical that without the facility of remote technology, it might have been enough to cause the employee to cancel or postpone their holiday. In reality, far too many workers have become ‘anxiously attached’ to constantly checking their messages only to end up responding to unimportant or non-urgent tasks – instead of allowing themselves to detach from work long enough to recharge themselves and regain their perspective.

Another reason so many workers find it difficult to switch off is because throughout the day it’s our duty to respond. Leaving the office or going on holiday doesn’t stop new emails from coming in, so even though we no longer have the same responsibility to respond, it’s very hard to overcome the pre-programmed desire to reply.

Our psychological ability to differentiate between when we need to be immersed and connected and when we need to disengage hasn’t kept pace with technological advancements allowing us to be ‘always on’. So much so, we have to question whether or not technology allowing us to remain constantly connected to work is actually a good thing?

What’s right for your organisation?

Some workers can easily dip in and out of their emails outside of work, when they need to, without any lingering sense of unease - not to mention those for whom being able to work flexibly, outside normally defined hours, is of huge benefit. But for most, the blurring of home and work life is doing more to increase anxiety and stress levels than it’s helping to alleviate them.

What’s most important for those of us who want to utilise technology out of hours is that this doesn’t force others into feeling like they need to do the same.

There are, of course, those managers who send out critical emails or requests for information last thing at night, on the grounds they ‘didn’t expect a reply straight away’.

Well, asides from the fact that we’re highly programmed to respond straight away, when someone senior sends out an email late at night or from the beach, they also send the message: ‘This is what it takes to get on.’ 

Employees are governed not only by their employer’s written rules but also the ‘psychological contract’, which compels them to mimic the behaviour of their seniors. 

The upshot is: if your business doesn’t live and die by day-to-day decisions that can’t be delegated to anyone else, you’re probably better off giving your employees the chance to enjoy their hard-earned holidays, so that they return fresh and recharged, anxieties in check and creative juices flowing.

Simple measures you can put in place

If you don’t feel able to get a company leader to formally ban everyone from checking email on holiday, there are numerous other ways to lessen the impact.

Simple measures such as automatically forwarding emails to a colleague, or getting managers to agree only to contact employees via telephone or text if, and only if, something urgent comes up, can go a huge way to alleviating anxiety levels. 

Not only will employees feel less compelled to check email if they can’t access them or know important matters will communicated in a different way, but managers will have to think much more carefully about whether or not they really need to contact someone on holiday, if they have to look up their personal number before getting in touch.

At the very least, it’s important to acknowledge the impact our ‘always on’ culture is having on our psychological health and create a policy for contacting people during their holidays that’s been properly thought through. Otherwise, we’ll simply continue to allow negative working practices to evolve by accident.

Sources: 1 Microsoft, May 2014 | 2 ft.com/managment, August 12, 2013