Sondra Sutton Phung knows how hard it is to disconnect from work life. During a February trip to Disneyland, Phung, marketing general manager for electric vehicles at Ford Motor Company, squeezed in a 5:30 a.m. conference call and checked emails after her nine-year-old daughter was tucked into bed.
“There is stress in checking [email]—and there is stress in not checking [email],” says Phung. “When I did check, it was always after family time because you cannot live in the moment if you’re constantly checking email.”
Most American workers struggle to unplug. A 2021 survey found that almost 31% of full-time employees worked on weekends and holidays and the compulsion to check email, voicemail, and Slack channels doesn’t just extend into the evening; it often takes over vacations, too.
Two-thirds of workers “sometimes” checked email on vacation while more than 20% “always” monitored their work email—and that’s assuming workers took vacation at all. In 2022, just 30% of Americans with paid vacation time planned to use all of their time off.
“It’s often easier for people to justify work over leisure,” says Kaitlin Woolley, associate professor of marketing at Cornell University. “This…can make it especially challenging to detach from work during vacation.”
Instead of scheduling a vacation only to spend your days working poolside, try these six strategies to work-proof your vacation.
1. Plan to unplug
Phung left her laptop at home, uploaded files to a shared cloud-based account, added vacation dates to her shared calendar, and set an out-of-office auto responder before she boarded the plane to signal her plans to be (mostly) disconnected during her vacation. Those simple acts alleviated stress and allowed Phung to feel good about being offline.
Prior to her last few vacations, Taren Rodabaugh, CIO for Bridgestone Americans, added vacation dates to her shared calendar, appointed staff to manage tasks in her absence, and reminded her team that she would be unreachable; the efforts allowed her to be completely unplugged.
“[Disconnecting] starts before you go on vacation,” Rodabaugh says. “You need to be creating a team and a structure and setting expectations.”
2. Turn off notifications
Rodabaugh knows she may want to use her phone for GPS or to take photos on vacation. To keep from being constantly interrupted with email, voicemail, and texts, she turns off notifications. Research supports this idea, showing that reducing notifications can reduce the temptation to check your phone.
“After about a day, I don’t feel the need to look at [my phone],” Rodabaugh says. “The clarity that you get…around resetting your priorities happens when you disconnect.”
3. Take drastic measures
Can’t resist checking email? Remove the app from your phone or leave the phone behind. Ron Rudzin, CEO of Saatva, often sets out on vacation adventures without his smartphone.
“In normal life, my phone is in my back pocket,” he says. “When I’m on vacation, it’s in another room.”
Rodabaugh has also been known to book trips that are so far off the beaten path that cell service and Wi-Fi are nonexistent.
4. Set yourself up for success
In the weeks leading up to vacation, Woolley suggests clearing your to-do-list and designating a point person (or two) who can help field questions and jump on anything urgent during your absence.
Phung uses a group SharePoint account for document storage and assigns tasks to other team members to minimize the chance of being disturbed.
5. Plan to plug-in
For the times that being fully disconnected is impossible, setting aside a block of time to work is a good solution. Rudzin took that approach during a monthlong trip to Florida last winter, allotting specific (and limited) hours to check in with his team and tackle any issues that popped up. Outside of those hours, he was unplugged.
“It’s hard for me to unplug; we’re an e-commerce business so there’s action 24/7,” Rudzin explains “You have to be very disciplined, [but] checking in actually helps me relax and enjoy my vacation.”
6. Resist temptation
Unplugging is essential for your health and wellbeing. The World Health Organization found that working long hours was linked to an increased risk of stroke and an higher risk of death from heart disease. Taking vacation has been linked to increased productivity and less exhaustion.
“Taking this time is going to reinvigorate you for when you are back at work…” Woolley says. “Remind yourself that your time off is helping to make you a better employee and you’ll be that much more energized to get back to the task at hand after your vacation.”
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