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The anxiety trade-off: should you work on vacation?

Written 24 July, 2018, 3 minutes to read

Sun, sea, software. In our hyper-connected world, working on vacation has become a very real option for a lot of workers – remote and in-house. But even if you can now work from anywhere, should you? We explore the psychological factors driving people to work on vacation to assess whether this growing work-culture phenomenon does more harm than good – and how to ensure you’re ready to take the plunge.

The working vacation culture

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Shouldn’t you enjoy your rightful rest and focus on the people you love on vacation? Then again, wouldn’t you hate to obstruct something important at work and return to an overflowing inbox…?

Welcome to the anxiety trade-off of the modern vacation. Whether we just check the odd email or consciously take our work laptops to the pool, tons of us are now working on vacation – up to 66% of the American workforce alone. But why?

Clearly our devices have a big responsibility. Having engineered the ability to “work from anywhere” with prolific Wi-Fi options and cloud-based tool access, it’s hard to justify (or achieve) switching off entirely.

But there’s a work-culture issue at play here too. A study by Project Time Off found that those who already work remotely as part of their job tend to put more pressure on themselves to stay connected at work while they’re away than those who don’t work remotely.

They also reported that 78% of respondents felt more comfortable going on vacation when they knew they could access work, positioning the stress of working on vacation as preferable to the stress of cutting connectivity entirely.

Many self-employed people and key decision makers feel they can’t unplug entirely on vacation, since there is no one else to manage their business. But a robust business plan should really be able to cover a week or two out once a year.

Is working on vacation healthy?

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Whether it’s fear of the mess awaiting your return or falling behind, or the drive to prove professional dedication and stay in the conversation, the stresses keeping us locked to our devices while we’re away are very real and very unhealthy.

If you continue to work in a period specifically set aside to free you of work, there’s a problem. All the anxieties above reveal insecurities – that no one else can do your job, that relaxing will look like you’re not engaged, that a break will in some way affect your future standing in your role.

They’re the standard mark of a toxic work culture where no firm policies or expectations about working on vacation have been set. When no boundaries exist, employees take cues from senior staff. It’s precisely why the Harvard Business Review thinks every email sent by an employee on vacation is “a tiny cultural erosion”, signalling that employees can never completely switch off.

And you need a break. No one wants burnout – it’s precisely why vacations exist. Mixing work and play can actually harm the quality of your downtime, since working for just one hour a day can make you 43% more likely to have difficulty remembering your vacation. Not cool.

Are you actually ready?

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Given all the bad news above, the decision to work on vacation clearly shouldn’t be made lightly. To help you decide if it’s right for you, honestly consider the following:

  • Do you actually need to work? What’s your actual purpose in working on vacation? If the work can wait until you’re back, what’s driving you to try it?
  • Are you comfortable with it? Do you have control to define what work you do on vacation? Is it an experiment or driven by something outside of your control?
  • Who else will be affected? Will working on vacation negatively impact anyone else travelling with you? Do you have enough space to enjoy time with them?
  • What work do you plan to do? What boundaries will you set? What do you want to achieve? How much time will that take away from your vacation?
  • Will that work actually be quality? Is your vacation really the right setting for completing that work? Is it better to postpone it until you have more focus?

If it feels right and you can control it, by all means give it a go! Just make sure you plan ahead to keep your working vacation productive and healthy.

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