Message to self on holiday: do not look at messages

The further you are from work, the more its news disturbs you, writes Lucy Kellaway

Emailing when away, I reasoned, is inevitable, mildly useful, and fine so long as you use the drug in moderation, says Lucy Kellaway.

Emailing when away, I reasoned, is inevitable, mildly useful, and fine so long as you use the drug in moderation, says Lucy Kellaway.


On most things about working life, most people agree. Diversity is good; bankers’ bonuses are bad; creativity is good, box ticking is bad, and so on.

But there is one thing on which there is no agreement at all: whether it is okay to check emails while on holiday.

Last week’s news that staff at Daimler can free themselves of this holiday tyranny has got the two sides fighting again. The carmaker’s novel scheme means that all messages landing in the inbox of someone who is away automatically destruct, and the sender is told to contact someone else instead.

Hooray for Daimler, said some people. At last, a chance of getting a proper break. Madness, said others. It is crazy to be so doctrinaire when spending a couple of minutes a day checking what is happening at work is so easy and so efficient.

Which side is right?

I have just passed this summer in violent disagreement with myself on this matter. Three years ago I wrote a column coining the word “worliday”, and declaring myself to be a great fan of it. A worliday is where you do light work when away, with the result that you can take longer breaks from the office than you would be able to take otherwise.

If, like me, you enjoy your job, there seems nothing wrong with doing a little of it as the rain pelts down on the roof of a cottage in Cornwall. Emailing when away, I reasoned, is inevitable, mildly useful, and fine so long as you use the drug in moderation.

On holiday this year, I changed my mind. I was sitting in the same Cornish cottage reading a new book by John Lanchester. In it, he quotes a surprising statistic: adults in the UK spend on average less than a quarter of their waking lives working – based on 45 years of working eight-hour days, five days a week with 28 days annual leave, and an 81-year lifespan.

If work takes up so very little of our lives, how come it feels as if it takes up so much?

The answer was in my pocket, buzzing to tell me that I had an email. There was no reason for me to look at it, but I looked anyway. It was nothing – a request for a distant meeting.

But even so, I noticed a tiny physical reaction, a tightening in the stomach, a rise in the pulse, a response that was greater than if I had seen the same thing in the office. There is an odd thing going on here: the further you are from work, the more its news disturbs you.

I have now changed my mind altogether. There is never any excuse for emailing while on holiday – or rather there are lots of excuses, but all are bad ones. I can think of five straight off.

nYou are indispensable. There are decisions to be made and you are the only person who can make them. If you are chief executive and a takeover bid lands in your absence, you may need to do something. But that is not a reason for checking messages – it is a reason for leaving a contact number. Generally, if your employer can’t do without you for two weeks it has serious problems and it may be time to look for another one.

nYou are not indispensable. You think someone will get ahead of you in your absence. This fear is perfectly rational, but the answer is not to go on emailing. It is to realise that although someone may well snatch work in your absence, in the long term it usually makes no odds.

nYour work is more interesting than trying to communicate with your teenagers who are glued to their own phones. This is fair enough, although a better solution might be to do something more enjoyable: to go for a swim or have a gin and tonic.

nYour smartphone is right there and it is too tempting to have a look when the thing buzzes. In that case, the answer is not to give in – it is to have a corporate nanny like Daimler to save you from yourself.

nDealing with messages as they come up is less bad than dealing with a mountain on your return. This used to be a moderately good excuse, but the new Daimler system has destroyed it forever. As it deletes all messages, you come back to an empty inbox.

Indeed, there are three other miraculous things that come from the carmaker’s approach.

First, it means the end of the maddening out-of-office email and the reply from the beach that inevitably follows it. Second, it shifts the balance of email power from sender to receiver.

And most important of all, it means that if senders are frequently told that their messages have been deleted unread, they may think twice before sending quite so many. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

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