Work/life balance: why checking emails on holiday is bad for business

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We live in an ‘always on’ business culture, where checking emails whilst on annual leave is the norm – but keeping tabs on the office while you’re away may actually be doing more harm than good.

Our latest research revealed that 65% of respondents admitted to checking work emails while on holiday, with various degrees of frequency, and 75% said they have taken or made a work call while on leave.

The higher up the organisation you are the more likely you are to be ‘checking-in’, with only 19% of senior leaders giving their emails a break.

Around half of business leaders revealed they had checked their emails daily or every couple of days. Leaders of small business owners are most inclined to stay in touch by phone whereas 86% admitted to taking or making calls.

Despite the number of business leaders keeping an eye on work while on holiday, 96% of bosses don’t expect staff to check emails when they’re on leave. In fact, 64% actively try to encourage staff to switch off completely from work.

Work/life balance

Is this a worrying indication of poor work/life balance on the part of these individuals or is it telling us something about the changing nature of work?

What we are really questioning here is what we understand work/life balance to be.

Is it the ‘harmonious interface between different life domains’, where each domain has an importance, so if we manage the interface appropriately the outcome is a happy state of harmony? Or, as Harvard Business Review would have it, ‘work/life balance is at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth’.

Is it something that can’t be achieved or might not even exist at all? Can we participate successfully and satisfactorily in various personal domains and be successful high achievers in our professional lives?

Resource allocation versus creation

If we have a resource allocation view of balance we recognise resources, time, energy and money as finite. Work/life balance is the careful assigning of resources and harmony is achieved when the resources are set out ideally.  

A resource creation view sees each of the elements of work/life balance having the potential to contribute to each other and so expanding the resources available.

Some of these relationships are quite easy to see – for example, if you maintain a high level of personal fitness, get enough sleep and eat well,  you will generate more energy for the other aspects of your life. You are, in fact, expanding the resources available.

Working without respite is a poor allocation of resources and it won’t create more.

Harmony between the domains may be achieved in several ways. For example, the increased self-confidence and contentment that a happy family life gives you could be transferred into the workplace. Or, for example, you might develop an ability to see things from different perspectives through spending time with a range of stimulating friends, which then becomes useful at work.

In this way, you are using the experience from one domain to impact the others in a positive way and essentially increasing the resources at your disposal.

Blurred lines

We must also consider the extent to which individuals support the view that work is work and life is everything else. This is influenced by how much of your identity you derive from work and how much success at work contributes to your own level of general satisfaction with life.

You might take a resource creation view of work/life balance to maximise your effectiveness at work.

Checking emails on holiday might actually reduce stress, and enable you to relax more on holiday - indeed 33% of managers claimed this in our research. It is only the individual who determines what is and what isn’t contributing to their overall wellbeing.

Working without respite is a poor allocation of resources and it won’t create more. Fatigue brought about by long working hours not only increases the likelihood of accidents, but for knowledge workers it also impairs the effectiveness of their decision-making.

Top tips to break the habit

Technology and family friendly flexible working policies mean work/life boundaries are increasingly blurred, but we do know that people need holidays, so they may return refreshed and invigorated.

The Institute of Leadership & Management has some advice for managers about taking holidays seriously, so getting the most benefit from that break from the routine.

  1. Build in time to catch up
    Dedicate your first morning or day back from leave to catch up, whether it’s via team meetings, going through emails or both. A lot can happen in a week, so give yourself enough time to get up to speed and focus on the priorities.
     
  2. Turn off email notifications
    It’s unnerving to see the inbox numbers steadily rise while you’re on leave and therefore it’s tempting to tune in. Don’t be afraid to turn it off. If someone needs you urgently, they’ll call you.
     
  3. Ask your colleagues to give the cc button a holiday
    You don’t need to be copied into every email, so ask them to think twice about whether it’s necessary.
     
  4. Consider your impact on others
    Think about the message you’re sending to your teams if you don’t manage to switch off.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read Work/life balance: ditch the clichés.

About Kate Cooper

About Kate Cooper

Prior to joining The Institute of Leadership & Management Kate Cooper worked in the university sector. She has appeared on, amongst others, BBC Television, BBC Radio 4 and has a regular column in Dialogue magazine. She is a key note speaker at conferences and provides expert commentary on a range of topics arising from the Institute’s research agenda. 

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