Not everyone will share Louise Greenleaf’s feelings about holidays.
“I get bored really easily and keeping an eye on work keeps my brain active,” says the head of marketing at City College Plymouth.
“I’m also a bit of a control freak and will worry about what’s going on back at the office.”
Given a free choice, most people would prefer not to keep in touch with the office while on holiday, but many people feel obliged to.
Recent research conducted by UK cyber-security firm Tessian, which spoke to 1,000 employees in companies that employ at least 100 staff, found that more than half of UK employees feel there is an expectation within their organisation to reply to emails quickly.
And six out of 10 employees use their mobile phones to send emails during out-of-office hours.
Recruitment firm Glassdoor has similarly alarming statistics: 23% of employees who took annual leave in 2018 regularly checked their emails, while 15% continued working throughout their holiday because of fear of falling behind and the consequences of not hitting their targets.
Checking emails on holiday
You may have heard about a new concept being talked about lately in the realm of health and wellness: digital detox.
This is when people decide to deliberately go offline, whether it’s staying off social media for a certain period of time, or turning off their smartphone and laptop completely and going to stay somewhere that doesn’t have good mobile reception or broadband internet.
“I check my work emails a couple of times while I’m away, but most of the time I ignore them. A holiday is supposed to be a break from work and I treat it as such. I don’t even speak about it, I don’t want to be reminded of it,” Blackburn-based IT technician Sophie Pickup told the BBC.
Catherine Warrilow, head of PR and content at gambling firm Rank Group, agrees. “Switching off for a holiday is a fine art and a skill – something a lot of business coaches and mentors are actually teaching people to achieve.”
She says she knows of people who “absolutely refuse to detach”, because of the fear of missing an important opportunity or request.
“I can’t say I don’t think about work when I’m on holiday with my family, but I absolutely switch off from calls and emails, and some of my best ideas come to me when I’m detached from the day-to-day,” she explains.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the professional body for human resources in the UK, says that the feeling of needing to “always be connected” has been rising since the Blackberry phone first gained popularity about 15 years ago.
Since then, there has been a gradual expectation that if you have access to technology that enables you to reply to messages instantly and makes you always contactable, then people should be able to reply quickly, even outside office hours.
“Lots of people’s bosses are checking their emails during their holidays, and that sets an expectation for employees to do it too,” the CIPD’s membership director, David D’Souza, told the BBC.
“If the culture of the organisation, what you see around you, is people who are always online, always responding to things quickly, people will be worried that they will be disappointing their boss if they don’t do the same.”
Chris Harding, chief executive of Essex-based removals and maintenance services company Actual Group, says he discuses this topic with his team a lot, but there is “no definitive right or wrong” answer.
“You don’t really fully relax not knowing what’s going on. However, some may relax more if they are totally detached from the business,” he says.
“So in theory, you should most definitely have a complete break from work, whatever position you are in, which in turn allows the business to manage without you or a team member, and will show up possible issues or weaknesses in the structure [of your company].”
Prof Alan Woodward, a computer security expert based at Surrey University, says one of the fundamental problems with email is the way in which the out-of-office function works.
“They seem to be sent only the first time you send a message to someone who is, well, out of the office. As most of us don’t know when people are going to be back, and because you receive that message only once, most people tend to ignore it and carry on sending. We’re all guilty,” he told the BBC.
“Hence, senders and recipients are locked in this dreadful cycle where we know we might adding to the misery of the others, but somehow the system encourages us to do it.”
According to the CIPD, most companies do not stipulate that people must stay connected when they are on annual leave. However, they recognise that the perceived expectation does not help, and some firms are taking steps to tackle this.
Mr D’Souza says some HR departments or IT departments have started restricting people’s access to email while they are on holiday.
For instance, Daimler in Germany has introduced a policy that if you try to email a person who is on annual leave, the email will be deleted.
It really depends on the culture of the organisation in question, he adds, but HR departments are starting to take into account psychological research into the negative impacts that smartphone overuse has on mental awareness, sleep and even posture.
“Organisations benefit from people who return from holidays being fully rested,” he stresses.
“We need to have a better relationship with technology and make sure we aren’t addicted or getting too much screen time. And secondly, we know that people’s productivity dips if they’re not adequately rested within work.”