A vacation is meant to be a time away from work, but most Americans can’t seem to let go. A study from the career site Glassdoor found that 66% of Americans work on vacation. Staffing firm Randstad US found that 53% of employers expect team members to reply to messages while on paid time off.
Danna Greenberg, professor of organizational behavior at Babson College, says successfully navigating work/life balance is different for every person, and the question of whether or not to work on vacation isn’t black and white.
“I have worked with some individuals who find checking email at a set time every day helps them stay on top of general issues and avoid the stress of returning to work on Monday morning with a flood of emails and to-dos,” she says. “Some individuals enjoy using part of their vacation time to think about big, strategic issues, to read articles or books related to work, or to think about their professional development.”
When deciding whether or not to bring work on you trip, Greenberg suggests asking yourself these three questions:
- Am I working on vacation because I am afraid my team or colleagues won’t do the work well enough if I am gone? “If the answer is yes, this is a red flag of micromanagement and means you need to change how you manage your team,” she says.
- Am I working on vacation because my boss or client won’t give me the space to separate from work? “If the answer is yes and working on vacation is creating stress, then you need to think about how to renegotiate or change the expectations work has for your availability,” she says. “There is great research available about the negative impact on our work productivity of a 24/7 culture that can help with resetting these unrealistic expectations.”
- Is working on vacation detracting from my ability to relax, recharge, and spend time with people or explore a new place? “Part of the reason for vacation is it opens our eyes to new places, new people, and new ideas,” says Greenberg. “It gives our minds and bodies a break and enables us to return to work in a more positive state. If the answer to this question is yes, then the vacation is not worthwhile time away and the person needs to think about shifting the type or amount of work they are doing on vacation.”
What kind of work you can do
If you decide to bring work, it helps to know what type will be least intrusive, says Michael O’Brien, chief shift officer at Peloton Coaching and Consulting. “You should avoid work that isn’t urgent or important or anything that can take you down a rabbit hole,” he says. “These can wait until you return.”
For better balance, it’s best to set your intentions and boundaries before your vacation, says O’Brien. “For example, I’m going to check email between 7 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. daily,” he explains. “[Say] ‘If there’s a true 9-1-1, call me.’ This clarity not only helps you stay balanced but provides clarity to your family and work colleagues and can help avoid unnecessary vacation drama.”
It’s also important to recognize that vacation is not the opposite of work, but rather is in and of itself, a different kind of work, says Sarah Greenberg, lead coach at BetterUp, a coaching platform. “The brain at rest is actually quite active,” she says. “This vacation brain is indeed working for us, just in a different way.” Allowing your mind to wander, for instance, can be helpful for future planning, creativity, and learning.
What kind of work you shouldn’t do
Some kinds of work, however, should never be tackled. “There are inevitably going to be times in which working through a vacation is aligned with our high-level goals,” says Sarah Greenberg. “If I were to generalize, I’d say avoid email, Slack, or any other direct messaging. A classic line I hear is, ‘The vacation was great until I opened my email on day three, and all my work stress returned.'”
Asking if you can work through vacation and keep balance is similar to being asked whether you really need to bring in your car for an oil change once the warning light flashes, says Sarah Greenberg.
“In the short term, you’ll save time by not stopping for vehicle maintenance,” she says. “But if you go too long without a tune-up, you can’t expect your vehicle to last as long, nor operate at its full potential. Vacation is crucial to well-being.”