On the Clock

Out of Office: How to Successfully Stop Working on Vacation

In the age of 24/7 accessibility, it’s harder than it used to be.

Once upon a time, in an era where email and smartphones and WhatsApp didn’t exist, you could head out for the holidays knowing that whatever might come up while you were away would have to wait until you return.

Not anymore. In today’s world, where communication is instant and expected, that scenario is pure nostalgia—a fantasy, even. While there are many benefits to living in a hyperconnected world, being able to take an uninterrupted break from work isn’t one of them. Indeed, in a 2017 study by Korn Ferry, just 3% of respondents said they never check in with work when they’re on vacation, while 41% of respondents said they check in at least once a day, and 34% said they check in several times a day. Perhaps even more surprising, 88% of respondents said they have cut short or canceled a vacation due to work pressures.

In one survey, 88% of people said they’ve cut short or canceled a vacation due to work pressures.

Of course, there are many reasons why it’s getting harder to unplug. Some are literal: many of us use the same phone for our personal and professional lives, which makes it difficult to create a clear line of separation between the two. But there are emotional reasons, too. Career experts say there’s often a guilt or sense of “fear of missing out” associated with taking time off—especially if you see your boss and colleagues working during their own time off. Here’s how to try to take a break:

Overcommunicate in the lead-up to your absence.

It’s important to plant the seed and remind people that you’re going to be away. In conversations with clients and colleagues you interact with regularly, mention that you have a vacation coming up so that they won’t be caught by surprise when they get your out-of-office message. Update your Outlook calendar so people aren’t scheduling meetings with you during that time. Most importantly, spend time educating anyone who will be filling in for you; leave them with important contact numbers and helpful notes so they won’t be tempted to bug you while you’re away, career experts say.

Write your future self a checklist.

There’s something funny that happens when you get back from a holiday, even a brief one. Suddenly, everything you were working on feels like it was a long time ago, and it’s hard to pick right back up. Get ahead of that feeling by writing a note to yourself that outlines your priorities for the week you return. Not only will it help you be more organized, but you’ll be able to enjoy the holiday without having to mentally retain your to-do list. “Putting it down on paper will help get it out of your head so you can step away for a few days,” says career counselor Andrea Weiss.

Create an out-of-office auto response that signals your intent.

At this point, most people know how to set an out-of-office message. But too many people fail to include the right details. Career professionals say the best out-of-office messages should specify not only the dates you’re out, but your intent: Are you checking email intermittently? Will you be completely unavailable? Remember, you’re setting the expectation about how and when you will reply—so don’t overpromise. 

One thing to consider: padding your return date by a day so that you have some extra time to start responding to emails and calls. “You’ll still be working that day, but you’ll be tending to all of the things you didn’t get to take care of while you were away,” says business etiquette coach Jacqueline Whitmore. “You’re giving yourself some cushion.”

Experts also recommend including a contingency for emergencies. If you aren’t able to include the contact information of someone who can handle urgent requests while you’re away, Whitmore says it’s best to tell senders to reply with “URGENT” in the subject line or reach you on your personal phone. The key, though, is communicating with your team what really is considered urgent.

Be your own ally.

It’s hard to shake the feelings of guilt or anxiety that come with getting away from work, but it’s for the best. Research shows that taking a vacation not only reduces stress and improves productivity, but could help prevent against heart attacks. Experts say it’s best to limit phone time, reduce or turn off your notifications, and remind yourself that you’ve earned this time away. “It’s very important to take time off and to be with loved ones during the holidays and at other times,” says Weiss. “The chance to recharge, rejuvenate, and put our work lives in perspective makes for happier, more productive employees.”

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