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Still checking work email on vacation? This employer says ‘Stop’

Veta Richardson, president and chief executive of the Association of Corporate Counsel, stands in front of a world map in her office in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Pete Marovich For The Washington Post)

After ten years working at the same company, Debra Woodfork is planning a four-week sabbatical in May. The design manager at an association for corporate in-house lawyers in the District plans to take her first international trip to Japan. And to make sure she comes back refreshed, her employer is taking the extra step of suspending her work email account.

While she is excited to soak up Japanese culture, and indulge her “obsession” with matcha green tea, Woodfork said leaving her inbox unchecked may be difficult.

“Sometimes I do it so much, I don’t even know I am doing it,” she said.

No-email vacation policies are one way employers are dealing with the stress of the modern workplace, where technology allows people to field work emails late into the night and first thing in the morning when they roll out of bed.

For managers trying to address the creeping issue of overwork, vacation is a good place to start setting boundaries, said Cassidy Solis, workplace flexibility program specialist at the Society for Human Resource Management.

[If you send late-night emails when you don’t need to, then you’re part of the overwork problem]

While the work day is often blurred, a vacation is well-defined, as in “I need off the week of March 1,” Solis said.

Solis’ organization recognized Association of Corporate Counsel with its most recent “When Work Works” award for employers that stand out for promoting work-life balance.

It also honored Creative Plan Designs, a retirement consulting firm in East Meadow, NY, that automatically forwards emails to another employee for staff members on vacation, and Olark, a San Francisco-based technology company that gives a $1,000 bonus to employees who take at least five days of vacation without checking in online and share vacation photos when they return.

“We try to give some positive reinforcement, so they understand it’s okay to take this break,” said Karl Pawlewicz, an Olark spokesman based in Brooklyn.

Pawlewicz spoke from his vacation in Quebec, where he said he bent the rules to correspond with a reporter. But said he also had time to do “a bunch of awesome stuff,” such as visit his nephews, stay in “a castle-like place in Quebec City,” and enjoy the “Canadian version of bowling.” He also took “a couple naps here and there,” he said.

Studies show that taking time off from work — and work-related email  — lowers levels of fatigue and job burnout. Employees who come back rested tend to perform better at solving problems and other creative tasks. Such policies are also a recruitment tool and encourage retention, employers say.

Some European companies have been leaders in restricting email use outside of working hours.  Germany-based automaker Daimler allows employees to set their email accounts to auto-delete while they are on vacation. And Volkswagon, also based in Germany, programs its servers to stop sending emails to some employees after-hours.

Starting in January, a new French law gave employees nationwide “the right to disconnect.”  The law requires companies with 50 or more employees to devise a policy that prevents office emails from encroaching on leisure time. One proposal is to stop work emails after 6 p.m.

French employees can legally ignore work emails outside of office hours

The law followed a French study about the affliction of  “info-obesity”that detailed health effects such as sleeplessness that stem from chronic reliance on technology. A separate 2014 study from the University of British Columbia found that people who frequently check email throughout the day experience higher levels of stress and tension, as they constantly shift their attention between tasks and rearrange priorities.

Reactions to France’s new policy have been mixed, with even advocates for family-friendly work environments urging caution and saying that a no-email after hours policy is not the answer for a lot of employees. Many people have colleagues in different time zones. And many value the flexibility to work nights or weekends if it means they have some freedom during a typical work day.

“Edicts alone won’t solve the problem of overwork,” said Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor at the Purdue University Krannert School of Management who said her research shows that people want to work at different times and different ways depending on their habits and personal lives.

“We have to teach people to have healthy email behaviors,” she said. That could include employees and employers talking about what is a reasonable response time for email, for example, and what is appropriate time to send emails. “It’s not good to send email in the middle of the night,” she said.

Veta Richardson, president and chief executive at the counsel, said unplugging from work completely for a few weeks helped her at a critical time in her life. Her mother died in 2010, while she was working as a chief executive at another organization. In her grief, she and her sister boarded a plane for a three-week trip to India. She told her staff she would not be checking email. When she came back she felt rejuvenated, she said.

“I learned it does not matter what position you hold, things can be handled when you are not here,” she said. “It’s a lesson I have never forgotten.”

She unplugged again when she started her job at the counsel a year later, with a three week trip to China. Then she made the benefit available to her staff of more than 80 people.

“We told staff you should not feel the need to keep up with email while you are on leave or the need to come back to an overwhelming inbox,” she said.

Among those on her staff who have taken advantage of it: Joshua Shields, an associate editor for the counsel’s monthly magazine, went to Uruguay last year on a vacation. On the first day, he surprised his girlfriend by driving to the beach and proposing to her, he said.

Catherine Moynihan, senior director of legal management services, was among the first to unplug during a two-week trip to Australia with her family. She did so under some duress from Richardson.

“It’s hard to let go for some of us who take a lot of ownership and are tied up in our jobs,” she said. For her it meant dropping that one hour a day of email maintenance that allowed her to keep tabs on things while she was gone, she said.

“I was definitely twitchy for a while,” she said. “I realized I had this physical reflex while waiting in a line or that pause in a conversation before picking up the book.”

Instead she went scuba diving, visited friends in Melbourne, and saw some kangaroos. “It allowed me to really forget about work, not have it be in my dreams and in my night wakings,” she said.

The conference room at the counsel’s office features a wall full of glossy travel photos taken by staff members  over the past 15 years. There are pictures from Arches National Park in Utah and Victoria Falls in Zambia and a flea market in Beijing.

Tiffani Alexander, editor in chief of the association’s magazine, is also planning a month-long sabbatical this summer after 10 years at the association.

She plans to go to Greece and learn more about ancient history.  “I want to go to Athens and stand where Cleopatra stood,” she said. Then she plans to sit in her home office and work on her own historical novel.

As the editor in chief, turning over the reigns completely is something she has never tried to do, but she said she trusts her co-workers, and she’s ready to try. “I feel like the sky won’t fall,” she said.

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