The digital age has allowed us to be connected to each other remotely all day, every day – but at the same time, it has made it harder than ever to switch off. Whilst we all need to take well-deserved downtime, many business owners and employees are shirking away from setting up an Out of Office reply, choosing instead to use smartphones, tablets or laptops to handle queries whilst away. In some cases, this is even expected.
A survey conducted by Accor’s upscale hotel brand, Pullman, revealed that 86% of regular travellers will take their work phone away with them, while 40% will take their laptop. 90% said they will work, check or send business emails whilst away, while 82% said they felt obligated to work out of hours.
Many experts have raised concerns at the growing number of people who are failing to completely switch off from work whilst away – with some claiming that failing to check out completely can cause workers more stress than not taking a holiday at all. In France, workers at organisations with more than 50 employees have won the ‘right to disconnect’ from 1 January 2017, with new laws designed to tackle the ‘always on’ culture. Scott Helmes, Managing Director of careers website CareerBuilder, explains: “Taking time off is important for employees to rest and recuperate from the stress of their daily work lives.”
But other experts believe staff should be contactable whilst they are away – particularly those who are ‘mission critical’. Chief Executive of The Formations Company, Piers Chead, encourages his team to ‘work for each other’ rather than working for one person. He claims his employees “want to reply and want to help” because of that philosophy.
A further argument for staying on top of work whilst taking a break from the office is that the workload won’t be so overwhelming upon return. A survey by CareerBuilder found that four out of 10 workers felt they had so much to do when they returned from holiday, they wished they had never taken the break. Indeed, according to travel agency Sunshine.co.uk, the biggest cause of anxiety amongst holiday-goers is falling behind at work, affecting 67% of people. Handling some of this work whilst away can reduce the load on returning to the office.
So, what exactly is the ideal work/life balance that we should all be aiming for?
The pros of being contactable
Ditching the Out of Office message and allowing yourself to be contacted whilst away is not without its advantages.
Some companies pay employees overtime if they work whilst away and this can be valuable in a difficult economy. Other organisations reward their staff with additional holidays by way of compensation.
Being open to handling simple enquiries while being away from your desk can also help earn recognition from your employer. If you’re willing to go the extra mile, it shows dedication to your job – and to the company.
Additionally, some find that assisting colleagues or reassuring clients when they need help can be very satisfying. Knowing you’ve made their lives easier during a difficult or stressful time can be a rewarding feeling.
Keeping on top of work also helps avoid having an overwhelming amount to do when returning to the office, and you’ll also know what’s been happening in your absence.
The cons of being contactable
The main argument for completely switching off whilst on holiday is that employees are more likely to return to work feeling refreshed, re-energised and motivated. At best, productivity can suffer – and at worst, they could develop a stress-related illness if they haven’t switched off. Working whilst on holiday also interferes with family time which can put a strain on relationships – potentially leading to further stress.
Research by Group Risk Development (GRiD) in February last year found that stress and mental illness were still amongst the main causes for long-term absence in the workplace, although they noted some improvement on previous years. The report revealed that achieving a good work/life balance was now a priority for employers, with those who had promoted flexible working initiatives - including both working from home and compressed hours - showing the greatest improvement in productivity.
Achieving a balance
With both pros and cons of ditching the Out of Office message, clearly a balanced approach to contact whilst taking time off is needed – particularly whilst employees are on holiday. Regardless of whether it is expected or not, new technology has made it tempting for employees to stay connected to the office whilst away. However, employers need to take the lead in limiting this so their employees do not suffer in the long term.
While Steve Gandy, Chief Executive of MeetingZone, believes employees should be contactable, he also believes this contact needs to be unobtrusive. He says: “Our attitude is that if you have to be in contact while you are away, make it as efficient and effective as possible. It should not be invasive and shouldn’t be so that the employee feels they never have a break.”
One way of achieving this balance is to designate particular times of day when the employee can be reached for work calls or emails. This stops employees feeling like they are always on call, allowing them to switch off and get the health benefits of a proper break.
Employees can also set an Out of Office message with the contact information of another colleague, should the query be important. The stand-in colleague can then process the messages and refer any that are urgent to the absent employee during the pre-agreed times for communication.
Chloe Ravat is the Marketing Communications Manager at PartnerPlusBenefit, a loyalty rewards scheme for business passengers aboard 10 of the world’s leading airlines.