Working Smarter

Are You Really on Vacation If You're Checking Work Email or Calling In on Vacation?

Posted by Joe Robinson


As Americans flee their work stations in search of vacation R&R this summer, almost all will have a stowaway on board with them: a device that prevents them from actually being on vacation, their smartphone. Every email check-in with the office while on holiday insures that the psychological detachment needed to provide the restorative benefits of the vacation is harder to achieve.

Vacations may be the best work-life balance strategy there is—the best chance we have each year to fully live and reboot our health—but they can only help us if we are there mentally as well as in body. Checking work email or making business calls keeps the mind tethered to the stressors of the office.


A Trip Advisor survey of 16,000 people in 10 countries found that 77% of Americans work on their vacations, while 40% of Europeans do. I hate to point out the obvious, but maybe it’s not so obvious anymore: Vacations are supposed to be a respite from work, where you don’t do what you do the other 50 or 51 weeks a year. Remember?

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Vacations are a remarkable tool to restore health and wellness because, as studies by Dov Eden and others show, they interrupt the sources of stress—unless you keep those sources alive by checking work mail and doing business calls. Then the separation is gone and the mind is back at work, ruminating over anxieties and work issues that crowd out the experience of the vacation itself and the positive emotions key to our re-creation.

A study by Derks and Bakker found that excess phone checking while not at work interferes with work-life balance by taking time away from leisure activities that are more beneficial to mental detachment.

I saw that on display at an upscale Waikiki hotel that had an infinity pool. In the late afternoon on a gorgeous Hawaiian day, some 80% of people lounging around the pool had their heads stuck in their phones, not looking at the view of Diamond Head, the surf, nada. They could easily have been at home. Others in the pool were also hypnotized by their screens in a scene that would have inspired a great Rod Serling script.


The healing power of the vacation is remarkable. Vacations can cut the risk of heart attack in men by 30% (Gump) and in women who take more than one vacation a year by 50% (Framingham Heart Study). There’s no health food that can give you that benefit. Vacations stop burnout by regathering crashed emotional resources, such as a sense of social support and mastery (Hobfoll, Shirom).

The medication that performs these amazing feats is distance—mental and physical separation from the source of strains and pressures that drive stress. With the flow of stressful events and can’t-cope stories in the ancient brain shut off, the body can do what it is actually designed to do—repair you. The cure for the activation of stress is the rest and maintenance that comes from our own parasympathetic system. We are born to wind down. Failure to close off the flow of anxiety-activating emails and thoughts makes it harder for rehab to get under way.

Getting away from the job mentally was a lot easier before the digital era. The only way you could stick your nose into events back home was by loading up your pockets with a stash of coins and finding a pay phone booth or by running up a big bill on the room phone.

Now, of course, being at work on vacation is as easy as checking the phone. Since that is a reflex as natural as breathing these days, it’s hard for people to see the danger in it or the lack of self-discipline that has relinquished control of our minds to impulse and whim.


That’s partly because so many are addicted to devices, the byproduct of interruptions that erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it, research shows, as your effortful control mechanism is compromised. We wind up being unable to resist impulsivity and self-interrupt our vacations by gazing into the glow of the electronic security blanket. More than a few people today have nomophobia, the fear of being without a mobile device. Are you one of them?

There are several issues keeping people tethered to devices on vacation—the addiction piece and lack of self-control, the fear of non-constant stimulation (i.e., a quiet brain), and employers who insist their employees check in on vacation. Let’s take them one at a time.


People who are addicted to their phones, as Rutgers’ Gayle Porter has demonstrated, have the same issue as substance abusers—no self-regulation or discipline to resist temptation to check messages or Facebook posts. This also means you have no ability to regulate other habits as well, whether it’s for Sara Lee or Jim Beam. The physical size of the habit-formation centers in your brain increase in size and the control and decision-making centers shrink.

A vacation can be your salvation, a way to opt out of mobile codependence and restore self-control. Why is that important? Without self-regulation, you can’t control your attention. Without attention, you can’t focus on your work or be present for your life. Without attention your mind jumps to the two other tenses that house your problems. Full attention gives you control. When you have control, you don't have stress.

You can’t experience the moment when every spare minute is filled with a reflex to grab the phone. Scientists say that defaulting to a phone every free minute prevents your brain from having any thoughts to process while you’re sleeping at night, a time when the brain connects the dots of the day and processes memories.

The solution to self-inflicted phone abuse is to impound your phone as much as possible on the trip. Lock it in a bag and only take it out for emergencies. Do not bring your work phone with you. Do not check your work email. Have clear conversations with colleagues and supervisors before leaving about what constitutes an emergency. Have them call if there’s an emergency.

Email should never be used for emergencies. As a result, there is no need for you to have to check mail for possible apocalypses while on vacation. You will know if a certain person called that you have to take this one call.

If you are an entrepreneur and there is no one to pick up the slack when you're on holiday, give clients an early heads-up to your vacation dates. Inform everyone several months out that you will be gone on these dates.  Try to take care of any issues in advance. Leave a vacation message on your autoresponder. The vast majority of clients will respect that you need time away just like everyone else. If you need to check email, set a restriction--once every two days, once a week, once a day--and don't vary from it.


The second reason for too much screen zombie action on vacation is fear, the cold, clammy anxiety of not having the phone to fill every empty moment. We have become so accustomed to being stimulated with noise and updates and positive reinforcement from our “likes” that we can’t bear the silence of quiet. We aren’t used to being alone with our thoughts. 

It turns out, though, that what we try to run away from—our own minds—by constant din operates on the same dynamic as fear. It’s the act of fleeing from fear and quiet that causes the anxiety. Standing astride the moment, not running, not stimulating, is what minds really like. Really.

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Being absorbed in the moment is a hallmark of all optimal experience. Whether it’s cycling a country road or drinking in the awe of a spectacular vista, paying attention isn’t scary, it’s what we’re here for. It’s key to liking what you do and remembering it, studies show. How much will you remember about your vacation experience by staring at a screen? What unknown activities will you miss out on? What ideas won’t pop into your head because it’s being monopolized by a screen? What fascinating fellow travelers will you never meet because you are locked up with your headphones with the “leave me alone” sign on?

The answer to the fear issue is to let go of the need to fill every moment. Let the vacation unspool with its own rhythm to take you out of your carefully scripted choreography. That’s where the adventures are. That’s what our brain neurons want: novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment. Only a still mind can find the peace we’re in search of on vacation.


Sometimes it’s not your choice to check in on vacation. The company requires that employees check in on vacation. This is counterproductive. The whole point of the vacation is to get employees recharged. That’s why American companies in the early part of the 20th century began the vacation tradition. Studies showed people were much more productive when they got back from a holiday.

Studies still show that, including several by Sabine Sonnentag, who also found that health problems and exhaustion decreased significantly on vacation. This is one of the reasons why Bart Lorang, head of software company Full Contact, pays his employees $7500 to take their vacation and to be unplugged when they are on it.

He knows that a complete mental break is what’s necessary to restore fatigued brains. Our chief productivity tool, attention, has to be recharged just like a smartphone. Mental exhaustion creates disengagement, the last thing an employer wants, since employee engagement results in 28% more productivity.


We can solve a lot of the compulsory email checking on vacation by a little time management and planning at the office beforehand. This is how Europeans go away on their vacations without tethers. Everyone plans vacation time at the beginning of the year. This way everyone knows when the gaps will occur. Then they figure out who can cover for everyone while on holiday in the tradition of cross-training, which the U.S. Army is a big proponent of.

German automaker Daimler, though, may have just figured it all out. They came up with a system that allows 100,000 of their employees to relax without email concerns on their holidays. Employees can set their email to auto-delete before they go on vacation. The software tells the sender the email will be deleted and not saved. The person is advised to contact someone else at the company, instead. This way employees come back to an empty in-box and have no concern about checking email on vacation.

Now that is an elegant solution, insuring continuity at the office while you’re gone and enforcing cold turkey on the email self-inflictors. May it spread far and wide and put an end to the theoretical vacation.

If you are interested in the topic of time and how to have more of it in our lives for happiness, health and community, I invite you to join the Time Matters Conference in Seattle Aug. 25-27. I will be speaking there, along with many other experts, from former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber to John de Graaf, author of Affluenza and What's an Economy For, Anyway, as well as many doctors, scientists, and professors talking about the effects of stress and the importance of recharging and refueling. Click here for a link to the conference schedule.

Tags: time management, vacations and email, vacations and stress, vacation planning, work life balance and vacations

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