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Why I Won't Respond to Emails While On Vacation

Why I Won't Respond to Emails While On Vacation Blog Feature

Justine Timoteo Thomas

Director of Training, Host of Creator's Block Podcast, 10+ Years of Project Management Experience

September 12th, 2019 min read

Let’s flash back about six years.

I’m working as an inbound marketing consultant and am getting ready to take my first long vacation in years. 

I am at the office until nearly midnight making sure I have all of my client work done and my notes prepped and outlined for the people covering for me while I’m out. 

I finally sign off, nearly in tears because I can practically taste the salty Hawaiian air. 

And then — on my way to a luau, walking to the beach, and hiking Diamond Head — I check my work email. 

I respond to Skype messages (pre-Slack days...). I never truly unplug.

I come back, not refreshed or rejuvenated as I had hoped, and continue working for another year until I eventually burn out and quit.

I’ve repeated this pattern over the years and it wasn’t until recently I finally wondered why I couldn’t truly unplug during my time off. 

And then it hit me: because my coworkers didn’t unplug either. 

Stats about work culture

As an employee, these statistics resonate with me. As a manager, they scare me. 

I, too, have felt like the people in these studies, but as someone who leads a 10-person team, I know I cannot afford to have them burn out.

When you hear the term “burnout,” you may only associate it with feeling stressed, exhausted, or disengaged, but it goes much more beyond that.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business reported that burnout costs the U.S. $190 billion in health care expenses. What’s even worse, the report cites 120,000 deaths are attributed to workplace stress.

In addition, 95% of HR leaders blame burnout for the inability to retain staff.

So, how do we remedy this? 

Finding value in your work, being social with coworkers, and volunteering are all ways to help combat burnout, but the one that I know I can help influence with my team is taking time off.

Now, it’s one thing to simply say, “Unplug! Don’t check your email while out of the office!” and it’s another thing to actually put that into practice.

How to change your team’s time off culture

60% of employees work while they are on vacation. 60! 

If the majority of people are still working on their time off, how can they avoid burning out and potentially quitting because of it? 

As someone who has experienced burnout before, I know first-hand just how traumatizing it can be for an individual. But what I hadn’t considered before is how burnout affects a company as a whole.

Now, you may be wondering what was the trigger that caused me to self-reflect and focus on this issue. 

Well, the moment came after I was promoted to manage a team here at IMPACT. 

I asked myself, “What is one thing I could have a direct impact on that would lead to high-quality work, satisfied clients, and even higher profitability?”   

Then it hit me: my team’s happiness. 

I decided that by focusing on creating a healthy work culture for my team — one with more work-life balance — they would be happier and, ultimately, more productive

Here’s my advice to you: 

Evaluate the current state

In order to make improvements to your work or time-off, you first need to know how bad (or good) things are. 

Here at IMPACT, we do a weekly happiness score where every team member rates how they are feeling that week on a scale of 1-10. 

My goal is to have an average score of 9 or above. 

More often than not, I found people giving lower scores leading up to their vacation or immediately following it. 

Vacation is meant to be fun and something you look forward to! 

I knew I had to figure out why people were feeling unhappy surrounding their time off.

Find common threads

All managers here at IMPACT use the happiness-scoring method to get honest feedback on what people are struggling with and what is going really well. Are there any trends?

Don’t accept a surface-level answer, either, when talking with your team. If one person is experiencing frustrations or stress, chances are another team member has gone through something similar.

Really try to dive deeper into why someone is feeling unhappy or stressed so you can uncover the true underlying issues you need to solve for.

I discovered that leading up to someone’s time off, they were beyond stressed that stuff would be missed or something would go wrong while they were out. 

On the flip side, those who just returned from vacation were overwhelmed trying to dive back into work and trying to catch up on what had happened while they were out.

Having identified the two critical causes of stress surrounding time off, I knew we could tackle solving for them.

Host one-on-ones to address these issues or concerns

Meet with your team members individually. 

I previously worked for a nine-person company, but I did not have regular one-on-one meetings with my boss, the CEO. 

We never really knew what our co-workers were dealing with or what was going well or poorly. I felt disconnected, uncoached and, honestly, unmotivated. 

Meeting one-on-one with your team members will give you the opportunity to have an open, private dialogue about what is going on in their days and weeks and address the common pain points or issues you two have identified.  

This will help establish trust between you and your colleague — a must-have in any successful relationship, particularly when you rely on each other’s dependability.

Create a plan for time off

To help solve for the stress leading up and coming back from vacation, we established a process for taking time off. 

With it, we aimed to answer key questions: how do people submit their requests and how far in advance do they need to be? Where are requests recorded? When should they inform clients or coworkers of their planned time off? How should they prep for being out? How are they informed of what was accomplished or worked on when they return?

For that last question, my team created a “Vacation Planning Playbook” that is now used as a framework for the entire company. In it, includes an “Out of Office Outline” that notes:

  1. Dates for the planned time off
  2. Essential login information 
  3. Who the backup person will be to manage and complete tasks or client communication
  4. A breakdown of work that needs to be completed with instructions on what to do
  5. Agendas that are pre-made for any meetings the backup person needs to host

This document is shared with our entire team and we actively take notes within it while the person is out. This way, they have a reference for what was done when they get back.

This document also helps with my next word of advice. 

Set clear expectations

Make it very clear to your teammates on what is expected of them when it comes to time off. 

With my team:

  1. It’s mandatory: I’m not saying you need to force your team to take an extended, long vacation every single year, but at least one day off each quarter is mandatory so they can recharge and simply take a break from the daily grind.
  2. Be dependable: They need to be someone I (and the other teammates) can rely on when I’m not around. I expect them to be able to get work done, figure things out, and make decisions. If they relied on me for every single thing, I would be on calls answering questions every minute of every day. By being surrounded by dependable co-workers, teammates will feel confident in leaving work behind because the last expectation I set is....
  3. Don’t check-in while you’re off: This has a dual purpose. First, it helps ensure the person taking time off enjoys their time and doesn’t feel pressure to remain plugged in. Second, it denotes a sense of confidence in the team member that is acting as the backup and while the person is out 

Lead by example

This is my biggest tip: do as you expect your employees to do. 

Leading by example is going to be your biggest opportunity of improving your work culture

Are you constantly complaining or do you bring a positive attitude to team meetings? Are you a “yes person” and take on too much during the day or do you set clear boundaries for what you can get to in a given time period?

Most importantly, do you remain plugged in during “time off,” answering emails and Slack messages, or do you take the time to relax?

Your team is going to follow your actions, so if you are setting the expectation to not check-in while out, then you need to do the same.

Think back to me on that Hawaiian beach six years ago. I felt pressured to be available to answer questions or provide help to my colleagues and clients because each of my co-workers (and boss) were doing the same. It made me feel like “what gave me the right to unplug if they didn’t?” 

Leading by example can have a greater impact than you realize.

Enjoy your results (and vacation!)

Changing your work culture is going to be something that takes time, but even the smallest actions can propel you forward. Make a plan for when you want to implement the above steps and assign deadlines to work towards. And don’t be afraid to delegate! This is something that will benefit your entire team, so they should look at contributing as an opportunity to improve their work-life balance.

After following the above steps, I fully started to embrace my vacation time — not responding to emails, Slacks, Basecamp messages, and other communication when I planned to take time off. 

And guess what? 

So did my team.

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