The vanishing vacation

What did you bring on your summer vacation? Sunscreen, swimming suit… and if you’re like a growing number of travellers, you probably packed your cell phone and laptop.

A recent Associated Press- Ipsos poll found that 80 per cent of people bring their cell phone on vacation, and about one in five said they bring their laptop and do work. Other studies have pegged these numbers even higher.

For instance, a U.S. survey of advertising executives found that only 13 per cent said they “never” check in with their offices while on vacation – and nearly half (47 per cent) said they check in at least once daily. And small business owners fare even worse when it comes to leaving the office behind: 75 per cent said they checked in at their workplace at least once daily, according to a poll by American express.

It seems to be the new non-holiday. With electronic gear such as BlackBerries, laptops and cell phones acting as portable offices, people are staying connected to work more – and unwinding less – during their precious vacation time.

The vanishing vacation: obligation or desire?
Why this need to stay connected? Why spend our “off-time” with glowing laptops and buzzing BlackBerries? Perhaps, at least partially, it’s because we can.

In the Associated Press poll, the reasons given for performing work-related tasks such as checking voice mail messages and responding to emails included an expectation that they would be available. Some said they worried about missing important information.

Yet some worker-vacationers said they actually enjoyed staying involved, according to analysts.

When it came to personal emails, voice mails or other messages, people under 40 were most likely to stay in touch. But for work-related messages, it was the slightly older people who reached for the laptop rather than the suntan oil – possibly because of the greater work responsibilities that can come with age.

“Men in their late 40s and early 50s, middle managers, feel they can’t afford to miss something, and a vacation is secondary to them in terms of importance,” Geoffrey Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Penn State University told the Associated Press.

In the poll, more men than women checked for messages or worked while on holiday. Higher educated and higher-earning workers were also more likely to dilute their vacation time with work-related tasks, in part because of the demands of professional or managerial jobs.

Effects of the non-vacation
The benefits of “blowing off steam” are hardly the same when the valve is only half open, experts say. And while a working vacation may be better than no vacation at all, any feelings of satisfaction usually aren’t lasting and can lead to burn-out.

Studies have shown that taking a proper holiday has significant health benefits. CNN reported that women who take at least two vacations a year cut their risk of a fatal heart attack by half. And men benefit as well – in fact, some experts say that scheduling a holiday can be as important to your health as controlling your cholesterol.

A worker back from a holiday is energized, making them more productive and profitable. Overwork, on the other hand, leads to greater fatigue – which means more mistakes and less productivity. Even so, most North American workers are not encouraged to take uninterrupted holiday time or in some cases any holiday time at all, unlike countries such as Finland and China who actually make holidays mandatory.

Take back your holiday
Europeans average five weeks of paid vacation – compared with 2 weeks for North Americans (of which many vacation days go unclaimed each year). And now, it appears we’re working even during the vacation time we do take.

If you’re looking to reclaim your holiday, here are some tips.

• Try to schedule vacations during periods when your workload is relatively light.

• Cross train. Talk to your supervisor about training colleagues to cover for you, or if necessary, ask about hiring temporary staff.

• Tell clients, customers and colleagues of your holiday plans and provide them with the names of co-workers to contact in your absence. In addition, set up auto-reply messages on your voicemail and your email to let people know you are away and to provide names and contact information for co-workers to contact.

• If you must work while you’re away, set up specific ‘work time’, preferably for no more than 30 or 60 minutes a day. Discipline yourself to answer only the most essential calls or emails – and if possible do so at the end of day when it will be less disruptive to your holiday fun.

• If you’re worried about work piling up, try to return on a Saturday or Sunday which will give you some time to catch up before heading into the office.