Working on leave

Checking emails and doing a few hours work on holiday is a common thing these days, but employers could, and should, do something about it by doing more to address workload.

Always On Culture

How can we tackle the always on culture?

I was talking to a relative the other day who lives and works in the US and had been over in the UK briefly for a funeral. We were comparing holiday experiences. He said he usually takes his laptop with him and, after I left him, was off to do 2-3 hours work. I was commiserating as I was just back from a few days visiting a relative who is very fragile and spent at least half the time checking emails and doing work.

It’s not a new thing, of course, that people are increasingly working on their holidays and that work and non-work are merging more and more. To some extent this helps with caring responsibilities and the like, but it also means you never get a total rest, which, with the intensity of work these days, is not a good thing.

My relative and I were talking about how Gen X are working themselves into the ground and how Gen Z seems, in some sense, to be rebelling, although it is hard to generalise. How much of this overwork is leading to drop-out or health issues, we mused. And when people drop out there is more pressure on those who remain, of course. Gen X workers have been in the game for many years. That’s a lot of accumulated knowledge being lost and it takes years for employers to rebuild that knowledge.

Over the week I’ve been away I’ve had emails which demand an urgent response and others which say ‘I know you’re away and don’t look at this until you’re back’. The trouble is I am looking at it because of the urgent stuff and, knowing that the week back will be extremely busy in any event, I’d rather answer it now before the deluge. These days there is the constant threat of being overwhelmed by work and the feeling that you are just one step away from being buried or missing a vital deadline.

It’s not enough to have policies in place about work life balance and to tell people not to work on leave. The main problem is workload and the fact that, for so many people, there is no-one to cover for them when they are away, meaning they have to do two weeks’ worth of work when they take a week off and return to a full inbox. That’s why initiatives like the 4-Day Week are so important. Even if they may not work in all sectors or organisations, they force employers to look at how they can cut back on workload and focus on what matters, for instance, reducing unnecessary meetings or tasks.

In the absence of action by employers, it is up to employees to make it more difficult to be contacted when they are on leave, although that doesn’t address the return deluge problem. My relative is going away in the summer and says for at least part of this time he will be uncontactable. I recall an older relative choosing the most wi-fi less place he could find with poor phone connectivity for part of his leave. He took his laptop – his employer made him – but he had at least a few days when he was cut off from the world. Everyone needs time to switch off. Although many employers talk about mental health these days, the workload issue, which contributes to a significant degree to employee mental wellbeing, is something they can actually do something about if they are willing to rethink how they do things.

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