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Should you check work emails on holiday?

Laura Johnson

Laura Johnson asks if reading emails on holiday makes you a workaholic?

I confess, I read work emails on holiday. Yes, I can’t resist hastily scanning my inbox after a lazy day gazing out to the glinting horizon from my sunbed. With a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc in one hand, my iPhone in the other, I’ll inevitably spend between ten and twenty minutes perusing what’s happened during the day of work I’ve left behind. I know it will sound unthinkable to some, but I don't think it makes me a workaholic. Does it?

Since smartphones have become commonplace and WiFi has popped up in all but the most distant destinations, checking emails when you’re on holiday has become a hotly contested office topic. Daimler has taken an innovative approach to this divisive issue by introducing a “Mail on Holiday” assistant. The car and truck maker’s employees are offered the option of having all their incoming emails automatically deleted when they’re on holiday. The sender is politely notified by the handy automatic “Mail on Holiday” assistant that the recipient is on holiday, hasn't received their email and offered an alternative contact in their absence. 

The intention is that employees will no longer feel compelled to check emails from the beach and will have a refreshingly clear inbox on their return. It’s a commendable policy, but I would definitely be in the opt-out crowd. 

Nowadays we habitually respond to emails from our sofas with one eye on The Great British Bake Off and send our first messages of the day as we’re uncomfortably jammed into a crowded train during our commute. And because we do this so naturally, a cold-turkey withdrawal from office life on holiday can feel too much. Being out of the loop for two weeks is something the control freaks amongst us can’t even contemplate without breaking into a stress-induced sweat. I for one much prefer to know what’s going on than spend my sunbathing hours wondering and worrying. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Holidays before smartphones may have represented an obligatory disconnect from everything work-related but I don't yearn for the return of these simpler times. My memories are less nostalgic. The epic week before you go away where you work around the clock to pre-empt and cover every possible scenario that could happen while you’re away. The resulting pre-holiday exhaustion. Boarding the plane with your head still buzzing with fears you’ve forgotten to do something, fretting about whether your PA will remember to type up the report to the board you promised and nagging doubts over whether your holiday notes were thorough enough. Spending the first few days of your holiday shattered, as your body struggles to adjust to being in wind down. Then the day before you return, it all starts again as your idle sunbed thoughts slide back to wondering what tasks are mounting on your desk when you return. 

For me the comfort of being only a smartphone with a WiFi connection away speeds up the holiday adjustment process, so I’m in the holiday spirit before I’ve even arrived at airport check in. I find comfort in the fact that I can easily blast off an email if I’ve forgotten to do something or provide a quick response to an urgent request. I find I worry and think less about work on holiday when it’s not an unknown. If I check my emails, it satisfies my inner control freak and this means I feel a lot calmer.

Admitting this in public inevitably provokes accusations of being a workaholic. I’m not. It’s not that the line between work and holiday have become blurred – I have boundaries. My out of office will be on (and expected to be respected) for the duration of a trip. I don't take my laptop with me. And I definitely don’t accept any work (however lucrative) that has a deadline that falls mid-way through a much-needed break. Taking time off with my family is essential time I treasure and so I’m careful to keep my email checking compulsion under control. Once a day is definitely sufficient, with responses never to be expected and to be reserved almost entirely for emergencies. 

And this is what works for me. For others on the other hand, a complete digital detox is the only way to feel refreshed by a holiday. Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to try it. Are you? 

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