Why We Struggle to Unplug from Work

Most people spend more hours working than sleeping. And even when we’re not at work, it’s often hard to shift gears. On days off and even when on vacation, many of us have a tendency to think about work — and check our work email.

In fact, a recent Accountemps survey reveals that the majority (56 percent) of workers make contact with the office while on vacation. That stat varies widely by city: Employees in Denver, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City are least likely to check in while on vacation. Those who live in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Seattle are most likely to be in contact with the office several times a week while on vacation.

And some employees, such as those in Dallas and Nashville, don’t even plan to take a summer vacation.

We asked Michael Steinitz, executive director of Accountemps, to dig deeper into the survey findings. We also asked Kerry Alison Wekelo, author of “Culture Infusion: 9 Principles to Create and Maintain a Thriving Organizational Culture,” for tips to help truly check out when you’re not at work.

Why Employees Aren’t Unplugging

Don’t assume that employees are being forced to check in with the office when they’re on vacation. Steinitz says that, depending on an employee’s role in the company or their personal preference, there could be a variety of reasons why they’re not disconnecting from work.

With 24/7 accessibility, it’s become increasingly difficult for workers and leaders alike to disconnect fully while out of the office, “Steinitz says. “Depending on projects and workloads, some may feel more at ease when maintaining some contact with work while on vacation.”

The number of employees saying they won’t do any work on vacation is declining every year. In 2016, a majority of workers (59 percent) said they never check in while on vacation; that number dropped to 47 percent in 2017 and stands at 44 percent this year.

“Many of us want to be known as the go-to person in the organization, and if we are responsive that is very appealing to others and we become known as always being available,” Wekelo says. She says she has firsthand knowledge of that experience: “I was that person until I found myself burned out.”

Who Is Most Likely to Log Off?

The check-in numbers are pretty consistent by generation. According to the survey, millennial workers check in with the office most often. Thirty-one percent of millennials plan to check in at least once or twice a week, compared to just 24 percent of Generation X workers and only 15 percent Baby Boomers.

And nearly a quarter (24 percent) of millennials plan to be in touch every day they’re on vacation, compared to 18 percent of Gen X, and only 10 percent of Baby Boomers. Among workers who don’t plan to check in at all, 60 percent are Baby Boomers, compared to 43 percent of Gen Xers and only 31 percent of Millennials.

Why are Baby Boomers so adept at disconnecting? “Given their experience, they may have developed management skills that help them offload projects before they head out of the office — knowing that their colleagues will be able to handle things in their absence,” Steinitz says.

Keys to Returning Fully Charged

“Employees do need time away from work so they can return refreshed and re-energized,” Steinitz says. Prior to heading out, he says both employees and managers should set expectations for how and when they can be reached. “If they plan to truly disconnect, they should assign a delegate who can make decisions on their behalf so projects keep moving along.”

Since some people may feel more comfortable checking in once or twice, Steinitz says those communication times should be communicated to colleagues, and both parties should stick to the designated times.

Wekelo says that at her company, employees are coached to make a coverage plan before they leave the office. While they’re out, team members respect their dormant inbox by sending the vacationing colleague only one email a day — or waiting to send one compilation email (“this is what happened while you were gone”) upon their return. She says this strategy has worked wonders for the team.

Employees are more likely to follow the lead of their managers. “If managers encourage their staff to fully disconnect, they should lead by example and do the same,” Steinitz says. Since 2016, Wekelo says her company’s turnover rate has dropped from 33 percent to less than 1 percent. She agrees that leaders have to lead by example and make sure everyone has enough time to recharge.