Checking work emails on holiday is bad for you – and your boss

Australia is the latest country to consider providing workers with ‘the right to disconnect’

February 9, 2024 6:00 am(Updated 7:19 am)

Are you tired? Most people I speak to are exhausted, particularly if juggling family, career, a social life – and the devices few of us can put down for more than a few minutes.

Digital overwhelm is pervasive in our modern society. If we’re not scrolling social media, we are online to do the food shop or follow the news. And then there are the work-related emails, texts, instant messages and calls that bleed into evenings, weekends – and holidays.

Australia is the latest country to consider providing workers with “the right to disconnect”. Laws that give employees formal permission to switch off from electronic communications during non-work hours are already in place in some form in EU countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Belgium.

No such legislation is planned in the UK, although existing laws require employers to take reasonably practical steps to look after the health and safety of employees, and there are limits on working hours. But emails and other correspondence are a grey area.

I have learnt to set boundaries. My busy portfolio career encompasses at least four different projects and several other sub-projects at any one time. Lots of people want to get hold of me. But I also have a family to manage and a life to try to enjoy. So, I have an email auto response listing my working hours.

These are based around available childcare hours, so not your typical 9 to 5. I try to put down my phone for set hours in the day to remove the temptation to respond to messages. I also turn off all notifications.

I don’t think that’s all too radical, but it works, and helps to manage others’ expectations. I’ve had dozens of replies to my auto-response in which people have told me how much they admire the fact that I’ve put boundaries in place. The fact that it’s worthy of comment at all means it’s unusual. It shouldn’t be.

Chartered psychologist and author of Rest to Reset, Suzy Reading, tells me: “Feeling like we can’t switch off deprives us of much-needed time to decompress, ramping up our stress levels. We need an absence of decision-making to be able to replenish ourselves, mind and body.”

A 2022 poll suggested that 49 per cent of UK workers work unpaid overtime, averaging 184 minutes a week. I know how they feel. I took on one role too many last year and ended up averaging two unpaid hours extra per day. It led to burnout, which took months to recover from. Even on holiday, I was firefighting: a trip to Edinburgh saw me irritably ignoring my children and the friends we’d gone to visit in favour of my phone.

I was worried I wouldn’t seem hard-working if I switched off. In many northern cultures, face time at your work desk is fetishised. We’re always contactable. And that’s not a good thing.

Reading adds: “The long hours of availability we’re subjected to has a significant impact on our mood, mental clarity, the health of our relationships, the quality of our sleep and our ability to pitch up poised and ready for work.”

So if you want to achieve more, it might be time to do less. Employers and workers should both embrace a right to disconnect. It’s time to enjoy that hard-earned holiday.

Instagram: @andbreathewellbeing