Checking work e-mails on holiday – or not
Over half of European employees seem to be checking their work e-mails while on vacation*. Are you going to check yours?
This article describes the main trends related to (dis)connecting during holidays. It also offers tips to base your decision on, and how to talk about the topic with your employer.
In most of cases, neither the labour law nor employment contracts are explicit about an employee’s duty to remain reachable, or their freedom to disconnect. How the organization deals with your absence needs to be decided by your manager, but you also have something to say about it, so let´s have a closer look at the case.
Two sets of employees´ opinions
Follow the numerous internet forums on whether one should check e-mails during weekends and holidays, and you will come across passionate comments, typically falling under two categories:
One group of people think that holidays are for switching off from work – completely – and this is not compatible with reading and answering e-mails. They argue that even 5 minutes of reading work e-mails makes you think about them afterwards and takes your mind away from the rest that you were supposed to be enjoying, away from your private and family time. They believe everybody has a right to disconnect for a few days per year.
The other group of people considers checking e-mails a norm that they accept. They believe that connecting during holidays proves commitment to the employer and gives them extra credit (“someday somebody may appreciate it”). Checking e-mails is preferred also by those who say it helps them enjoy the holiday more – because they keep an eye on what is going on in the office and take care of anything important and urgent, and thus they can relax better for the rest of the time. They say that even without checking e-mails, any relaxation effect would be gone anyway, as soon as they are back at work, faced with hundreds of e-mails and tasks that could better have been done earlier.
Obviously, even without any pressures and expectations from employers, preferences of employees would differ, just as they differ among self-employed individuals who need to make a decision on their own behalf. Similarly, opinions differ among employers too.
Two trends when it comes to employers
Many employers consider it a standard thing: if your work contains even a bit of responsibility, as well as tasks that can be done from a distance, then you should be reachable and check your e-mails at least a couple of times during your vacation – they think. The expectation might go hand in hand with giving you a smart phone or any other mobile device, or agreeing with you that you would use your own device for work purposes. So, when you are leaving for your vacation, your employers might worry more about the security of your connections, and what type of holiday photos you might be backing up on the company server, rather than about their right to make you work on your days off.
However, there is an increasing trend of employers explicitly asking their employees to disconnect and take a break. They hope their employees come back from holiday with new motivation, high performance, and full of new ideas – as a result of getting fresh air and having a rest from work. Knowing that many employees prefer staying away from e-mails, employers can also present the freedom of holiday disconnecting as a benefit, with the aim of attracting and retaining a high quality labour force.
And then, there are employers who do not make their expectations really clear – and employees who wonder what to do.
How to decide and negotiate
Are you wondering too? If you are leaving for a holiday and you are not sure whether you should be checking your e-mails or not, try the following steps.
1. Cross-check the official conditions.
Find out whether the labour law in your country, your employment contract or collective agreement address the issue.
If it is addressed but not 100% clear to you, ask your manager what exactly is meant by it and what is expected of you in the particular case of your next vacation.
If the topic is not mentioned in any of the official documents, continue through the next points.
2. Be clear about what is your own preferred way of relaxing.
What gives you better relaxation: disconnecting or knowing what is going on at work?
Imagine that neither of those two options is actually expected of you, and it is totally up to you: what would you choose?
Be specific: for example, if you prefer connecting occasionally, how often would that be and how would you follow up on the requests in the e-mails? And if you prefer not checking your e-mails, would you like somebody else to take care of them, or let the e-mails wait for your return?
3. Make your own assessment on how important your connecting is for the functioning of the organization.
You know your work tasks best, so you also know best how important or not it really is that you read and reply to your e-mails. What do you think? What are the most important things to take care of while you are away? If you disconnected, what would be the risks, what could happen?
Are there any other ways of preventing or reducing the risks – other than answering e-mails during your vacation? Consider alternative options. For example, announcing to all important colleagues, collaborators, clients or customers, the dates of your leave well in advance and inviting them to contact you beforehand. Or, setting up an out-of-office auto-reply, including a note of who could be contacted instead of you. Or offering your phone number for very urgent cases only. What else could be done?
4. Formulate your suggestion.
Making sure that the company functions without you is actually a task for your manager. However, it is always good if you have some ideas prepared too, because it can help you negotiate for your preferred option. It will also show that you do care and feel responsibility (“someday somebody may appreciate it”), and it can help you convince your manager to give you the time off, even if s/he was not sure about it before.
Prepare your suggestion: how exactly you propose (dis)connecting during your vacation, and what ideas you have for lowering any risks your non-presence might cause.
5. Go and discuss the topic with your boss.
Do it no matter whether you are of the same opinion as your boss or not. It is crucial to agree very clearly on how exactly you will do it. For example, will you have your smart phone always with you and reply promptly? Or will you check your e-mails twice a day, once a day, once a week etc., at a regular time that your employer can count on? How will you process the e-mails – will you deal with them all? If you wish to disconnect, will you give your colleague access to check your e-mails?
6. Be sure to follow what you agreed on.
If you agreed on connecting and processing the post, do your best to keep your promise.
However, if you agreed you would disconnect, be consistent too. Resist the temptation to check your e-mails: you are not supposed to reply to them anyway, so they will just keep your thoughts busy for nothing. Replying quickly to an e-mail that has already been answered (differently) by your deputy can do much greater damage to your employer than if you remain on the beach with your phone left in the hotel or back at home.
If you and your boss cannot agree, check whether choosing a different date would change the expectations of your boss. If not, take it into account when making decisions about staying or not staying with the company – but for now you might need to accept the condition.
My impression, based on the particular cases of my coaching clients, is that only a very few bosses explicitly ask their employees to stay connected on weekends and holidays. Still, many employees do so, on their own initiative.
Sometimes it might be objectively important, at other times it is a mere habit to keep an eye on the smartphone, to avoid feeling guilty. The reasons can vary even more and might include avoiding having “too much time” to think about your own life or to discuss important family issues – keeping yourself busy with work can be easier sometimes – but that would already be a new topic.
So, getting back to your decision about (dis)connecting, and my recommendation for you: think about it, before you promise to check your e-mails and exchange your vacation for workation – do not remain connected just out of habit. Connect if it is really important and you agreed with your boss to stay within reach. Then plan some other time in the near future when you will be completely off. In the long run, it is crucial to have a proper and regular relaxation. It will show positively in your life and health, and also in your career. It will make you a better performing employee, and prevent your exhaustion or burn-out.
If you decide to disconnect and your boss agrees with it, do not feel guilty. Go and enjoy it, your employer will benefit from your performance afterwards.
High-tech machines need breaks, and you need them too.
Enjoy your time on or off.
* Over half (54%) of European respondents admit to checking their work emails on leisure trips, according to the survey carried out by TripAdvisor, in September 2011 on 10,115 French, German, Italian and UK respondents.