The Working-Too-Much Vacation

Why staying too connected may set a bad example for the organization.

Summer is prime vacation season, and even executives are willing to take a break—sort of. Nine of every 10 executives say they plan to take at least one week-long vacation this year, according to the 2017 version of Korn Ferry’s annual vacation survey. But out of the office does not mean out to lunch. Three-quarters of those surveyed say they connect to work at least once a day while on vacation, with 34% of them connecting several times a day.

Many executives say that being connected to work during vacation may just go with the job. “The higher up you are in an organization, the more likely you are to feel the pressure and the need to stay connected,” says Laura Balser, associate client partner for Korn Ferry Hay Group’s Executive Pay & Governance practice. But a boss who always responds to emails may not be setting a great example for the rest of the organization. Balser says there’s anecdotal evidence that colleagues and direct reports develop the impression that being unplugged on vacation is a bad career move. “It can be a create-your-own-monster situation, in which you feel as if you can’t let go of the office, so that you’re never really away,” Balser adds. “That attitude gets engrained in the organization, and others feel the pressure to respond.”

Given that attitude, it’s no surprise that executives are leery of “take however much time off you want” vacation policies. Nearly three-quarters of executives say that, even if given an unlimited vacation policy, they would take the same amount of time they’re currently allotted. Indeed, many would take fewer days off because they worry that their boss or colleagues might think they aren’t working hard enough.

Then there’s the flip side of being unplugged, being out of the office but still always working. Sure, putting out work fires is a perfectly justifiable reason to send emails, even while relaxing on a farm in Tuscany. But 25% of the executives surveyed say they stay connected because they “enjoy it.” Responding to every email while on vacation may not send the right message, though. “For example, if people know that an executive is on vacation out of the country and is still responding to every email that isn’t urgent, they are going to wonder: ‘What are you doing?’” Balser says.

Executives need to balance the need to stay connected with an internal filter about which emails they really should respond to while they are away. This can be accomplished by delegating to others and having assistants screen emails, escalating only those issues that need to be addressed.

Being more discerning about which emails to respond to while on vacation may send a healthier message to peers and subordinates, but that might not be the only incentive: Half of the executives surveyed admitted to having had a disagreement with their spouse because of being too connected to work. Better work-life boundaries, it seems, allows vacation to establish other connections—with loved ones and friends, and not just the office.