It’s Not a Real Vacation Unless You Turn Off Work Email

Given summer’s end, I’ve seen a number of articles about Americans’ general reluctance to use vacation days. The Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger reports that 15% of U.S. employees didn’t use ANY of their vacation time last year and that one company, FullContact, is now actually paying it’s employees $7,500 to take vacations. Yes, you’re wishing you worked for them. Let me save you a Google search, click here.

The bigger issue, however, is the percentage of Americans who take vacations but never truly disconnect from work. The Latin root of vacation is vacare, which means to “be unoccupied,” and that’s impossible if you’re reading and responding to email while ostensibly on vacation. Email triggers job-related stresses that raise your blood pressure, heart rate, and other obvious, but not good physiological reactions. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re reading your email on the beach or on the slopes, your head and your blood chemistry are still literally at work.

Have you ever taken a real vacation, during which you were completely unoccupied with work? Do you know anyone with professional responsibilities who has? I don’t. None of my business colleagues and connections - and I’m not talking about academics, I’m talking about my large network of business contacts from 8 years of being a business school Dean - are willing to “take the risk” of being totally disconnected. Indeed, a Korn/Ferry survey of 250 executives found that only 3% of top-level managers took “real vacations.” Furthermore, 84% cancelled vacations because of work issues.

After 25 years of always being connected, I’ve taken two real vacations in the last 4 years, so at least I get partial credit. People who don’t take real vacations can’t begin to understand their value. Simply put, these were the best vacations I’ve ever had. On the last day of each one, my wife and I turned to each other and wished for another week. When’s the last time you did that? In terms of physical and mental health, relationships with family, and the ability to gain perspective on work, there is immense value from taking a real vacation. Here’s what happened when I did.

  • Manage Expectations - I managed expectations each time, letting my team and external stakeholders know that I was going on vacation and that I wouldn’t be available.
    • And I went during the quietest time of the year. After all, why make it harder to disconnect by going during busy season?
    • And beyond communicating my vacation dates, my out-of-office email said, “I won’t be reading my email until I return. Really. I’m not kidding. I’m on a real vacation. Please contact…”
  • Turn Off Work Email - I actively turned my work email off as I boarded the plane. I still monitored and used my personal email to stay in touch with family, but turning on my work email required multiple steps on my devices. I did this for several reasons.
    • First, I didn’t trust myself to not look at my email. Face it, email owns us. It does. Anyone with management responsibilities is an email crack addict. It can’t be helped. So, don’t trust yourself. Turn your work email off. Even better, remove it from your smart phone, tablet, or pc. It’s not going anywhere and can be reinstalled after your real vacation.
    • If you don’t uninstall your work email, make sure that your email counter isn’t working or displaying. That happened once to me with a WiFI connection and I saw that there were 485 emails in my inbox. It took me 90 minutes to calm down. So make sure your inbox counter is completely off, too.
  • The Return of a Quiet Mind - In the middle of the second email-free day, my mind began to quiet. I was able to read undistracted for longer periods. I enjoyed what we were doing as we visited historical sites, museums, and listened to books on tape while driving. I was present in the moment most of the time. It had been years since this happened. It was wonderful.
  • Don’t Turn on Your Email Until You’ve Slept One Quiet Night at Home - Everybody works at home to some extent these days, but for your long-term health, your home should be a partial refuge from the stresses of work. So try to kickstart this new habit by having at least one night of vacation at home by not reading your email until the next morning.
  • 1,000 Emails is Easier Than You Think - I turned on my email the morning after we got home and found 1,000 emails.
    • But after sorting by subject line, I was able to group delete 300 emails (daily subscriptions, retail emails, etc.).
    • Then I sorted by conversation and found a serious of issues or pending decisions, all of which had worked themselves out by the time I got home! This is proof that you can rely on your team to get things done and to get them done right. There wasn’t one decision that I objected to. For each conversation, I simply sent an email thanking everyone for successfully resolving the issue (without me).
    • Finally, about 25% to 30% of the email, required a response from me. But, by coming home on the Friday of a 3-day weekend - it pays to think ahead - I had Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to clear my inbox before returning to work.

So, if you’ve never taken a real vacation, do it. Talk to your significant other. Tell your team and your boss and your external stakeholders. Make a public commitment and then do it.

If you’re the boss, set the example.

Even better, if you’re the “big boss,” follow the lead of Daimler Benz, which is institutionalizing a policy of turning off email for vacationing employees. Wilfried Porth, human resources and labor director at Daimler Benz, said, “Our employees who are on vacation should relax and not read business e-mails. “With ‘mail on holiday,’ they have a clean desk after the holidays and no congestion in their inbox. This is an emotional relief.”

In the end, real vacations are an investment in the attraction and retention of human capital. Appreciate your people. Let them enjoy their time off. Everyone benefits.