If you can’t fight the urge to check what’s going on back at the office, at least minimise the damage this compulsion can do to your holiday, says Monica Seeley.

Do you really need to stay chained to your email when on leave? The immediate answer is usually ‘yes’. But when probed about who says you are expected to stay in touch, most people say something along the lines of, ‘No one. I just feel I must’.

Obtaining real benefit from taking a break means relaxing, switching off from the day-to-day work worries and clearing your mind. For many, a holiday is an opportunity to spend uninterrupted time with family and friends. However, staying tethered to your emails – and these days social networks, too – often denies us these benefits.

We believe we can multitask but all the evidence points towards this idea being fallacious. You may be on holiday but if you are thinking about work, you are not always really part of what’s happening.

Email on holiday

The compulsion to stay in touch with email or social networks while on holiday often reflects deeper psychological challengesPhoto: Shutterstock

The compulsion to stay in touch often reflects far deeper psychological challenges such as anxiety about one’s job, lack of trust – and perhaps even the skill – to delegate, depression about dealing with the backlog on return, inflated feeling of self-importance and addiction to email and social networking.

The addiction is becoming a real concern both for psychologists and psychiatrists. If you do feel email addiction is an issue, benchmark yourself using our email addiction self-assessment tool.

There is also an underlying notion that email is somehow personal and private and no one else should be allowed access to your inbox. This belief is often a cover-up for poor email management and an inbox that contains a vast amount of personal email, counter to the company acceptable usage policy. Who would want someone else rifling through the folders of their private life?

How can you help yourself and those with whom you work to realise and accept that it is OK to disconnect? First is the obvious step of telling people very clearly what is expected of them. Just because you give them a mobile device doesn’t mean they cannot turn off the email and use it simply as a phone.

Second, ensure people have someone to whom they can delegate – be it a PA or a colleague. Make it policy that whenever people go on leave they give someone else email access to keep an eye on their inbox. None of us is indispensable and emails are company property.

Third, make sure you provide guidelines on what should be said in the out-of-office message to…


…manage people’s expectations about responses. Keep it safe, simple and free from information that might be useful to prying criminals. So, for example, simply say, ‘I will not have regular access to my email from A to B. If the matter is urgent please contact X’.

Fourth, provide some guidelines on how to pack and unpack your inbox for the holiday. Here are five tips you should include in these guidelines.

  1. Set your out-of-office message for a day before and after your actual leave period. This measure gives you time to clear the backlog at each end.
  2. If you handle confidential emails, such as those from HR or lawyers, set up some folders and rules to divert such emails. Train senders in the habit of adding the word ‘confidential’ to these emails.
  3. When delegating, agree a process for the other person to handle your inbox. Tell them about important expected emails and how they should be processed, and how they will indicate what has and has not been actioned.
  4. Set up rules to divert all unimportant emails to either a folder – for example, newsletters – or for deletion – for example, fire alarm test.
  5. On your return, talk first then check your inbox. A 15-minute catch-up with key people will reveal far more about what needs your attention far more quickly than spending hours trawling though hundreds of emails.

Email overload is such a problem that some take a cavalier approach and have all incoming emails deleted automatically. Their out-of-office message explains this fact and asks the sender to resend the email if it is important. It’s a bold approach but it does work.

Still feel the necessity to check in while checked out? Limit it to once a day, preferably in the evening to avoid spoiling the whole day.

Dr Monica Seeley is an international expert on email management. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University, and has just written her third book Brilliant Email published by Pearson. You can follow her daily email tips and hints on Twitter.