Out of office: should employees check emails on holiday?


Going on holiday used to be a chance to get away from it all and detach from work long enough to recharge. Mandy Rutter examines how this is frequently no longer the case.

It is becoming more and more common that, while on leave, some workers start dipping into their email and reconnecting with work, due to an increased anxiety about what might be happening in their absence.

Many employees now constantly check their mobile devices in case their workplace sends something important, and there is now evidence that many of us also check work messages while on holiday.

Anxious attachment

A worrying number of workers have become “anxiously attached” to their mobiles, constantly checking their messages, only to end up responding to unimportant or non-urgent tasks – instead of allowing themselves to detach from the workplace long enough to regain their perspective.

Some managers might perceive the increased availability and willingness of their employees to continue to put in extra time and effort outside of work and during their holidays as a good thing. The sad reality, however, is that far too little thought has been given to the psychological impact on employees, as they jump from one buzzing message to the next.

The main driver for an anxiety attachment is that we feel good about ignoring our work emails only when we are calm and confident and not feeling overloaded or threatened by our workplace. If we are worried that we could fail, that something is going wrong, or that we are not doing as good a job as we could do, we struggle to switch off mentally, even after we have left the office.

When we are 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 new email or voicemail actually says than deal with the imagined threat of not knowing.

Another reason why so many of us find it difficult to switch off is because throughout the working day, it is our duty to respond. The fact that we have left the office or gone on holiday does not stop new emails from coming in, so even though we no longer have the same responsibility to respond, it is very hard to overcome the pre-programmed desire to reply.

“Always on”

Our psychological ability to differentiate between when we need to be immersed and connected and when we need to disengage has not kept pace with technological advancements that encourage us to be “always on”.

The question for HR and occupational health is the extent to which allowing employees to remain constantly connected to the workplace could be damaging their mental health, by forcing them to remain in a constant state of anxiety.

Of course, there are those workers who can easily dip in and out of their emails when they need to without any lingering sense of unease. Others benefit hugely from “always on” technology that enables them to work more flexibly, perhaps even taking more holiday in return for making themselves available when urgent matters arise. But for most, the blurring of home and work life is doing more to increase anxiety and stress levels rather than helping to alleviate them.

Even when employees make conscious decisions not to read or respond to messages from work while they are on holiday, the ping of their phone or the mere sight of that unread message can raise their anxiety levels. So much so that most employers would be strongly advised to review and clarify those grey areas around what is or is not expected of employees with regard to checking messages outside of work and while on holiday.

Alleviating anxiety

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

Employees will feel far less compelled to check emails if they cannot access them, or if they have been officially banned from doing so. But, just as crucially, managers will have to think much more carefully about whether or not they really need to contact someone who is on holiday, rather than wait for them to return or redirect the enquiry to an appropriate colleague.

At the very least, it is important to acknowledge the affect that our “always on” culture is having on our psychological health and create a policy for contacting people during their holidays that has been properly thought through. Otherwise, we will simply continue to allow negative working practices to evolve.

The bottom line is: if your business does not live and die by day-to-day decisions that cannot be delegated to anyone else, it is important to the health and productivity of your workforce to give employees the chance to detach from the workforce now and again, so that they return fresh and recharged, with their anxieties in check and their creative juices flowing.

About Mandy Rutter

Mandy Rutter is head of resilience services and trauma management at psychological wellbeing consultancy Validium.
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