Struggling to disconnect on vacation? You are not alone

Jan 11, 2023

4 mins

Struggling to disconnect on vacation? You are not alone
Lorraine Posthuma

Freelance translator and journalist

In this hyper-connected world, we can work any time of the day or night, and almost anywhere from Boston to Buenos Aires. So, many Americans do just that – even when on vacation. More than half of those polled by Visier, which sells software for workforce analytics and workforce planning, admitted to working during their vacation. In another poll of more than 20,000 professionals, 54% reported not being able to fully unplug from work when on vacation. So why is that?

Rachel Druckenmiller, a keynote speaker and leadership trainer in the area of employee engagement and wellbeing, blames the powerful work ethic. “There’s an unspoken expectation [that you have] to always be working because we feel the need to impress others with our achievements, intelligence, and hard work,” she says.

Druckenmiller learned to value her time off while living in Spain for four months during college. “I felt better rounded after my time abroad and learned there are other essential things in life besides working hard and achieving all the time,” she says. Her Spanish professors didn’t mind when students missed a day or two of classes to travel to Switzerland for a long weekend. That’s because they wanted their students to experience life and have adventures, she says.

That’s not how things go in the US, she adds, where many Americans’ lives revolve around work-related success. We tend not to think about our lives as a whole but instead, we ask ourselves, “Am I achieving something? Am I doing something useful?”

Being always on

It’s become the norm to be available at any time to answer a “quick question” about work or to check emails. Perhaps that’s why half of Americans take their laptops with them when going away, according to the Vacation Deprivation Report from Expedia, and 41% of those polled join Zoom calls during a vacation. This is despite the fact that most of those Americans polled said they enjoy feeling unproductive on vacation, and 78% said their bosses are supportive of them taking one, according to the same report.

We may want to disconnect, but often we end up doing the opposite. Generation Z is the most connected of all the working generations and therefore the most likely to do this. According to Priceline’s 2019 study on work-life balance, 47% of GenZers feel pressure to check their emails and voicemails while on vacation compared to 40% of Millennials and 34% of GenXers.

Yet switching off is key to making the most of your time off, according to Nancy Hovde, a life empowerment coach. “It is important to be able to completely unplug from work during a vacation. Some of us end up using a vacation to recuperate, but we need to actually enjoy our vacation,” she says.

This is easier said than done though, says Hovde, because many Americans feel guilty about taking time off work. “Many feel they are leaving their co-workers extra work or perceived unreasonable expectations to pick up the extra slack,” she says. To assuage their guilt, they put in extra effort before heading off. “They feel if they work extra intently the week or so prior to leaving on vacation, they are in control of the volume of work and can limit what they leave for co-workers to oversee,” says Hovde. “This brings up quality. The quality of work can suffer, even if the amount of work being done is the same before and after a vacation.”

That’s the case even though Americans don’t take a lot of time off. Americans take an average of 14 days off each year while Europeans average 24, according to a survey conducted by Skynova, a small business invoicing software company. That’s not so surprising when you realize that employees in the US are not legally entitled to any paid vacation time, unlike their European counterparts who get at least 20 days, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), though French workers are entitled to 30 paid vacation days.

In 2021, Druckenmiller headed off to the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York, having decided to take a full 16 days off in order to unplug completely. She told her assistant not to contact her “unless something’s on fire.” Druckenmiller and her husband hiked, read books, journaled, played games, shared meals, and celebrated their 10th anniversary.

On the way home, Druckenmiller checked her inbox. There was just one important email, which she took care of on the drive home. “I’m grateful I didn’t let this one thing interrupt my vacation,” she says. “I realized it could wait.” Druckenmiller returned feeling refreshed and ready for anything – and you can too.

What to do when disconnecting seems impossible

Working from home became the norm when the pandemic began to make itself felt in 2020. That made it easier to blur the lines between work and play. So how do you get out of the always-on mindset? Here are a few tips:

  1. Think about what you are sacrificing if you don’t switch off. Druckenmiller advises those who find it challenging to unplug to ask themselves, “What’s the cost of me not taking time off? What’s the cost to my wellbeing, to my loved ones, to my happiness…?” In answering these questions, you can discover what matters most to you and you may be more inclined to use that break well.

  2. Open up to others. Druckenmiller also believes it’s essential to communicate. Plan your vacation in advance and talk to your boss about it. “Tell your boss you find it hard to disconnect from work while on vacation,” she says. Let them know that you don’t want to check emails or be contacted because you need time to rest. “Presented this way it’s not completely on you, but it’s not your bosses’ problem either,” she says. The issue is brought into the open by your being transparent and then the two of you have the chance to find a solution together.

  3. Consider what you want in your future. Taking that first step of communication goes a long way. Druckenmiller says, “If you have a boss that pushes back and says that you need to work on vacation, it’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself. Do you want to work for someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries?” she says.

  4. Realize work can wait. Even in the corporate world, she says, “deadlines or projects can usually wait a week if you need to take time off.” Not much is worth losing your sanity over. Your mental health and wellbeing are more important.

Next time you take a vacation, remember that it’s okay to unplug from work. It’s not just fun, it’s important to do so, adds Hovde. “People who actually take their vacation days return ready to work with renewed creativity,” she says. “Taking a vacation is an absolute necessity, and business professionals and employees should not feel guilty about taking one.”

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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