Always available – even when on holiday?

Published Jun 27, 2017

Holidays, time off and nice moments in the sun. Or constantly checking work emails so as not to miss something important? We asked a researcher of working life to provide some tips regarding getting away from work this summer.

Many people think it is convenient and practical to check one’s work email while lying on a hammock, but there is a risk that this establishes a behaviour that is not sustainable in the long term, for the individual or the employer.

If, however, you feel a need to be available, it is important to find a structure for this – come to an agreement with your manager regarding what expectations there are and set clear boundaries regarding your involvement, says Kristina Palm, researcher of working life and departmental head at KTH.

“It is my belief that we all need a long holiday without interruptions in order to be able to relax. To be as free as possible, one can start with the basics – delegate work tasks to those people who remain at work, and activate automated email replies and a voice mail message that clearly state that one is on holiday.”

At the same time, there are many people who want to counteract stress and worry by keeping a watchful eye on their work email. Kristina Palm’s advice is to have clearly defined routines: turn off any phone functions that announce incoming email and have a specific time during the week to read email.

“Research shows that our smartphones are particularly problematic, and that we have developed a habit of regularly checking for new messages. If we are going to monitor our inbox, this should be an active choice, with us deciding when and how it happens.”

Everyone can have an influence

Managers have a crucial role. Studies show that many employees feel that there are unspoken expectations to be effective in terms of work even when on holiday. According to Kristina Palm, it is important that the management team makes clear before the holiday what expectations there are, and also sets a good example itself.

“For many managers, it is a given to answer emails outside normal working hours, but many of them do not realise what signals such work habits can send out.”

Workplace cultures that involve always being available are something that everyone can influence and shape, she comments. A big part of this is each individual’s attitude – and leaning to relinquish a little control over matters.

“In some cases, we need to reflect about and question our attitudes. After all, the world is not going to end just because one does not have full control over one’s work email all the time.”

Kristina Palm herself, who is Head of the Sustainable Production Development Department, has reminded her staff in a summer letter that everyone needs a break. Her automated email reply will not state that she will be “checking email now and again”, but will instead contain a brief statement that she is on holiday.

“My experience as a leader and based on the results identified in research shows that employees do not do as their manager says they should but as the manager himself or herself actually does.”

Pushing employers

Kristina Palm is carrying out a research project, together with other scientists from the universities of Karlstad and Lund, which looks at how work without boundaries affects employees, including in terms of suffering from stress-related ill health.

She thinks there is a considerable lack of knowledge in the area, as neither managers nor HR experts are aware of the extent to which employees take their work home with them. The study aims to provide an updated view of the actual situation and push the issue higher up the agenda.

Greater emphasis has been put on employers’ responsibility regarding work-related boundaries in a new regulation issued by the Swedish Work Environment Authority. Among other things, it states that “expectations (on employees) regarding being constantly available” may increase the risk of ill health. Kristina Palm hopes that the results of the research project can provide the basis for a policy or guidelines.

“We want to influence how employers, managers and employees handle issues relating to a lack of boundaries regarding work, and hope to provide tips and recommendations on how the issues should be dealt with in practice.”

Text: Christer Gummeson

Kristina Palm’s tips and advice

Managers – note these points:

  • Explicitly tell your employees that you do not expect them to read work emails when not at work
  • Set a good example – do not send emails to employees outside working hours
  • Instruct employees about the preferred approach regarding automated voice messages and email out-of-office replies
  • Organise work so that tasks that need doing can be delegated during the holiday season

Employees – note these points:

  • Discuss and prioritise your workload with your manager
  • If you have to check your emails while on holiday, schedule this as an activity that is carried out at specific times
  • Turn off sounds and other indicators of incoming messages and emails
  • Define peaceful areas in which you are not available, for example places where there is no internet connection or by turning off your phone or not taking your phone or computer with you
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