It’s a curious feeling, holiday time in this hyper-connected, always-on culture we are in – blurry lines between work and personal life continue. I’m on holiday for a week soon so I thought it was a good time to write about this subject as I know I’m not alone!
I found an interesting old report by The Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) (1) that I think is still so relevant today; 3/5 UK workers feel that they cannot switch off from work during annual leave. It outlines that 61% of employees work while on holiday, with 64% openly reading AND responding to emails – I wonder if this % is actually very conservative now in 2017. The survey asked over 1,000 employees and managers their opinions on holiday working and concluded that 73% of staff are also more anxious during the time leading up to their vacations – and on them, if this data is correct, clearly. In the same article, Charles Elvin, Chief Executive of ILM observed, “Technology has revolutionised the way we work in many positive ways, but it can also discourage people from switching off properly. Always being reachable, even when on a beach, has left workers feeling obligated to check in for fear of falling behind”. Have we moved on at all from this or got worse? Its strange – this feeling is in stark contrast to the vast majority of forward-thinking, world-class companies and their leaders, who actively encourage flexible working, a strong focus on work-life balance, and taking breaks to recharge the batteries – I’m lucky to work for a company just like that, but yet still I do recognise the feelings this quote summarises.
So, what is going wrong here? Exactly why are employees are getting stressed at the mere prospect of even GOING on holiday, let alone feeling the need to keep working to mitigate a crisis during and after the holiday? I think the answer is, as usual, that it is complicated. I think the majority of people reading this can fully identify with this feeling – you know you need a break, but somehow you just can’t let go.
In another superb article I found in the Telegraph online (2) on this issue, with some really practical suggestions, Rhymer Rigby rightly observes that “many of us find holidays more stressful than actually being at work”. A key to reframing this is to change your perception of what your holidays are: they are really necessary! In the same article, Arabella Ellis, a director at The Thinking Partnership, a leadership consultancy, says of your holidays, “They let your unconscious mind work out problems. They let you decompress and repair”.
Yes, I know, we know – this is so right but, if you are like me, knowing this does not mean you don’t continue to really struggle with the above. And, like caffeine, giving up is not an option, and really you know you just need a better coping strategy. So, you are in luck – I have tested the following strategies myself on holidays this year, and here are my impressions on how they worked for me!
Option 1 – The Cold Turkey / AKA ‘The Handover’
So, pretty simple this one, and I’ve done this one on a number of occasions (honeymoon, long-overdue family breaks etc.) and am doing it this holiday (so I’ll respond to your comments in a week!)
The pros are clear: a clean, clear, mental break. But man, the demons – how many of us get ‘inbox paranoia’ on this type of approach? We all know the stressful lead in this one as well – the double whammy of the additional pre-holiday mad dash to get as many things done as possible before you go.
I think one lesson I’ve learned over the years is to focus on preparing by delegating as much as you can. (This shows you trust your team and colleagues to handle business – you do this on a normal working day, so why not for a few days blocked together?! And if you don’t trust them…? You need to ask yourself some very hard questions about yourself not them!)
Also, don’t focus on finishing too many things that aren’t even due before you return. Do you need to kill yourself to finish that 24-slide PPT that is due in 3 weeks, i.e. one week after you get back?
What I normally do is try to get key documents into a solid draft, but you don’t need to endlessly tweak the alignment of your killer introductory picture of a nice sun rising over Singapore etc. – that can wait. Get the basics done but don’t fret about the small details.
What else has worked for me? Well, truthfully, only one thing ever has got me through ‘cold turkey’ without cheating on myself – leaving the mobile phone at home. Yes, I said it. Or in the car, or in a locker, but don’t take it with you, and obviously don’t take a tablet or a laptop either.
Yes, I’m serious. It works for me and you can rediscover these things called ‘books’ and ‘magazines’ – they are incredible sources of information, creativity and insight, just like Facebook. Just make sure you recycle them, obviously.
Option 2- The Single Daily ‘Check In’
This is a good one and a nice compromise for those of you who are already getting shaky just thinking about option 1 above, and this is the one I often rely on most on holiday.
Alison Doyle is one of the industry’s most highly regarded career experts and, in a great article on this very subject (3) she suggests that this is a good compromise for most. She states, “Check your email once a day and ignore it the rest of the time or you will end up not having a vacation at all”.
I know this option is totally contrary to some great people’s thinking in this article but, for me, mentally knowing that there actually isn’t a crisis brewing is the very key to me actually enjoying myself!
Timing ‘when’ to do this is hotly debated and depends on what is motivating you to check in with work on holiday in the first place. Many people do it first thing in the morning, then enjoy their day (but a lot of people then spend their day worrying about what happened next…!). Others, in my experience, do the ‘end of day’ check-in before dinner – they deal with any problems that have arisen, and then clock off. One to try if typically you do the former!
Option 3 – Work A Few Fixed Hours On Holiday
This is an interesting one (and one I must confess, was once also intermixed with red wine in a French villa in a long-past job – some of my best work actually – but don’t try that at home/holiday, kids).
This one has much to commend it – begin with the holiday-style lazy wake up, breakfast, maybe the gym if you are feeling CRAZY, then, at a specific time, and for a specific period, log on, do a spot of work, then log off and lights off on work until the next day – and do this Groundhog Day for every day of your holiday.
I must confess, this is my personal favourite for staying on top of work anxiety. The benefits are clear to anyone who is really liking this option – you can stay on top of things, clear the decks, but then enjoy the rest of your day (which sometimes I find a bit tough when checking the emails late at night).
The downside on this one is avoiding the temptation to carry on and do a normal day’s work – if the words ‘I’ve just got to…’ come out of your mouth to your partner, you’ve entered the danger zone!
Option 4 – The Keep Working ‘Workation’
This one is a bit controversial but, increasingly, many articles are coming out on the subject of ‘workations’. For example, I read recently an article in BA magazine about working holidays (Business Life, July/August 2016 edition, Page 6 email by a very clever guy called ‘Daniel Lanyon by email’), which sounded amazing. “Why not go on a work filled holiday?” – go and do stuff somewhere else! I’ve done versions of this before – it is fun and a different perspective, for sure. The emergence of many shared co-working spaces in major cities all over the world definitely makes this easier – but hey, you can also do it by the pool!
For me, I’ve had some great experiences with this before settling down with my beautiful family, and found the moment I even got on a plane to go to my workation, ideas would come flooding out and, once there, getting through backlog of work was done quickly and very cathartically, but I sense this is a luxury for the few who don’t have said families!!
I guess my closing thoughts are to be clear on why you are the way you are, first and foremost. I also think that, while you are away, whatever form of working (or not working) you choose, reflect on why you feel you need to do that, and what it means in relation to your work, boss, team, and life in general. What exactly are you worried about happening, and is there a wider issue you need to address?
So, how do you handle working when you are away and supposed to be not working? Any tips not covered in this wonderful article, or great articles I’ve missed?
Thanks for reading – good luck with handling your inbox this holiday season and hit me with your comments!
Please note, this article or blog is entirely based on my personal views and opinion, and does not represent the views of my present employer, any other company I do work for, now, in the past or in the future!
Thanks for reading – you can find me on social media @drgeraintevans_
References (accessed February 2017)