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Should You Do Work Email on Vacation or Ignore it?

By Rob Bruce, VP of Product Marketing at Kimble

In the travel game “I packed my bag and in it I put my…”, people usually list fun items such as sunglasses, beach towel, Panama hat, that kind of thing. But according to a survey sponsored by Kimble and released this week, the list of what you might pack this summer should include the contents of a typical work bag: laptop, charger, plug adaptor and so on.

According to the findings of the Kimble-sponsored survey, most American workers don’t take all of their paid time off. And even when they do go on vacation they don’t switch off completely while they are away from their desks. About a fifth work every day on holiday, another third check their email and so on periodically, and another fifth don’t check in but are on call if needed in an emergency. That represents around 70% of the US workforce who no longer completely switch off while away. Kimble also released the PTO Guilt Report which details why American employees struggle to take their earned vacation time and what they can do to mitigate the guilt they have when they do take it.

But what the survey found is that this isn’t usually because of the demands of employers. Only one in ten said they were expected to check in frequently while on vacation, with another third saying that they were expected to be contactable in an emergency. But despite this, half of the 1,200 employees who responded to the survey said they check in either daily or periodically.

Probably many people will identify with this explanation from IT specialist Jeff Cambridge. “I spend at least an hour a day on email when I am on holiday. It’s not because I fear losing my job. It’s because I do not want to come back to a ****storm or 5,000 emails.”

But the downside is you are losing that complete break. I find time away from the day-to-day minutiae creates time for reflection – sometimes after a few days of total escape I have had important insights into how I could improve things at work.

And chewing through your work email can interfere with spending time with your nearest and dearest. That quick look at your phone over holiday brunch can all too easily turn into half a day of stressed phone conversations when something hasn’t gone according to plan back at the office. Maybe your intervention was necessary – but maybe someone else would have dealt with it, or it might have blown over if you had gone for a stroll instead.

It can cause tensions with the family when someone is present in body but not in mind for too much of the trip. I am probably not the only executive who has found themselves at times hiding in the dark of an installation at the art museum or in the comparative quiet of the men’s shoe section at the mall, answering that urgent message without being accused (again) of overworking.

The flexibility of modern technology means that you can attempt to do two things at once – be effectively at work and also be with your family picnicking on the beach. But in my experience, you have to be very careful with this as you can easily end up in the situation where you aren’t doing either very effectively.

I think the question of whether or not to check your email on vacation has to be a personal one. It depends partly on what you are doing – if you are whitewater rafting or skydiving it is never a good idea.

Personally, I am one of the largest group in the survey who checks in periodically while away. Heading to a beach house with the family for a week this summer, I will skim-read my email, particularly at the start and end of the period. I want to keep a weather eye on what’s happening but I will avoid taking on anything too time-consuming. I work hard and I feel I am entitled to a rest on my annual leave.

However, like it or not, it is a reality that many or most of us will be packing our laptops with our sunscreen this summer. This is something we all have to learn to live with, to manage and to set our own and others expectations around.