It takes a village to take a holiday

One of the most oft-given pieces of advice for achieving work-life balance is that you should not check your emails while on holidays. The fact that this makes some sense does not stop it from being pretty ordinary advice, for two main reasons.

First, nobody follows it, and giving advice that nobody will follow is pointless.

Second, the reason nobody follows it is that nobody wants to spend their first day back from holidays wading through hundreds of emails only to find the 15 that really matter hours later. The prospect of what is waiting for you when you return to work can create sufficient stress on its own offsetting any benefit from the holiday.

So we all do the same thing–log on from time-to-time when on our well-earned breaks and delete the chaff, the downside being that we cannot help but also see the wheat. Finding out that you have been allocated a task in absentia that will be urgent by the time you return creates another packet of stress, and most people will then spend some part of their holiday on working through that task. Again, this diminishes any positive effects of the break.

This means that when our staff or team go on holidays, we need to make an effort to insulate them from these sources of stress, and all it takes is a little proactive management. The aim is to ensure that staff really can disconnect from work stress without going completely off-grid and having to deal with an exploding inbox on their return.

The following steps will assist with this:

  • Create a culture openly supportive of proper breaks
    Make sure staff know that holidays are important and that you expect them to forget about work when on leave. Leaders and managers practising what they preach will make a huge difference for the people working under them.
  • Ensure staff set out of office Reponses for both internal and external emails
    The majority of people will respect these responses and so email traffic will be reduced for the duration of the holiday.
  • Temporarily remove staff on leave from group emails
    If the team are crowd-sourcing a solution to a problem, the holidaying member will probably chime in out of collegiality; best that they don’t know about the problem.
  • Don’t give holidaying staff a ‘heads-up’ email about a task that will be due their first week back
    If it is that urgent, assign it to someone who isn’t on holidays.
  • Don’t allocate tasks to staff while they are on holiday even if the completion date is a long way off
    Your staff don’t need to know about non-urgent tasks while they are on holidays; discuss it with them when they get back.
  • Holidaying staff do not need to see any email with the subject ‘FYI’ or ‘Interesting’
    Sure, there may well be exceptions to this, but most of the time they don’t need it; good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you would want to get the email you are about to send (actually, that is a good rule for most emails whether the recipient is on holidays or not).

Emails aside, these are some the things you can do to ensure holidaying staff have a great break. The main one is to put measures in place to ensure their workload will be covered in their absence, and make them aware of this. Knowing that when they return, their desk won’t be covered in files that tick suspiciously will make it much easier to relax.

At the time of writing, I have just returned from holidays, and those holidays were much more enjoyable due to the the fact that I knew my desk would not be overflowing with overdue tasks and my Outlook Calendar would not be stuffed with urgent meetings on my return. The fact that I was able to spend the first couple of days settling back in and getting up to speed made it a pleasant return to work. That is the sort of thing grows commitment to the team and mission, and helps retain quality staff.

Not all of these things may work for all teams and workplaces, but the vibe should be obvious. If you want staff to come back from breaks refreshed and ready to dive in and be productive, they will need to have the support of the whole team, and know they have it.

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