Labor Day may signal the official start to a new school year and the end of wearing bathing suits and summer whites, but more important than these, the holiday is a nod to the importance of taking a break from work — something all of us need. The federal holiday, first established in 1894, is traditionally spent far from the office — at the beach, in the mountains, or even on a staycation at home. But as too many of us know, the “office” is now everywhere and escape from work can seem nearly impossible.
Even employees who technically have the day off often don’t, really, because checking email 24/7 has come to be nearly the norm. A recent survey of 400 white-collar workers conducted by the Adobe Campaign found that many are practically addicted to email, regularly checking work email on their off-hours and feeling burnt-out from it: 42% surveyed said they check email “way too much.” Nine out of 10 respondents to Adobe’s poll said they check work email at home (though they check personal email at work, too). Those surveyed reported using email six hours a day, or about 30 hours in a given work week. So it’s probably no surprise to hear that half of the employees surveyed said they check email while on vacation, remaining only a click away from their job on Labor Day and other days off. The survey also found that outside of work, those surveyed frequently check email while:
- watching TV (70%)
- relaxing in bed (52%)
- talking on the phone (43%)
- using the bathroom (42%)
- driving (18%)
Some workers have had enough, though, of their always-on schedule. The Adobe survey found that four out of 10 respondents had gone on an “email detox,” avoiding their inboxes for five days. Some employers are setting “curfews” on email-checking, but this isn’t so much from a concern for their workers’ health, as it is due to a proposal from the Department of Labor announced by President Obama. If passed, it could mean overtime pay for some salaried employees who are expected to stay connected to their work email after-hours.
Email and Work Addiction
So when does the compulsion to work all the time, including holidays, become something nearing an addiction? “Workaholics often have a very difficult time disengaging from work,” notes Malissa A. Clark, PhD, an assistant professor of industrial/organizational psychology at the University of Georgia, in Athens. So if you obsessively check work email while you’re not on the clock (or for you there is no such thing as not on-the-clock), this could be an indicator of workaholism, particularly if you feel anxious and/or guilty if you’re not constantly touching base with work, she adds. (For more signs of workaholism, check out the Work Addiction section on Addiction.com.)
Many corporate cultures contribute to the inability to disconnect from work, of course. “Workplaces that encourage or demand that employees constantly stay connected to work on their non-work time may indeed foster or reinforce workaholic behavior, particularly if the employee already has workaholic tendencies,” Dr. Clark says.
A recent meta-analysis by Clark and her colleagues looked at the differences between true workaholism and simply being very engaged by your career. The researchers found the following distinctions between engagement and work addiction, says Clark: “Engaged workers typically are driven to work because of an intrinsic joy of work. Being engaged at work can sometimes spill over into your home life in a positive way, too, if you’re more jovial as a result of feeling good about your career.” On the flip side, Clark says, “workaholics feel compelled to work because they feel they should be working. They often feel guilty or anxious if they are not at work.” Some liken this to a “pull” to work (which would be representative of work engagement) versus a “push” to work (which would be workaholism), she explains.
How to Fight Always-On Connectivity
Workers receive 125 business emails on average every day, according to the “Email Statistics Report, 2011-2015” (PDF), published by the Radicati Group, Inc., a technology market research firm based in Palo Alto, California. That level of email overload is bad enough, but apparently these messages can flow in at many hours of the day and lots of bosses and clients expect them to be answered, pronto: A 2015 Workfront survey of over 2,000 respondents on balancing home and work found that 89% said it was not appropriate for their employer to contact them after work hours or give clients their personal contact information (which doesn’t mean this isn’t happening, of course). Over half surveyed felt that family dinnertime has been “ruined” by bosses and clients demanding immediate responses via email and text. Nearly half of employees, though, thought that companies could help restore some work-life balance by imposing a policy dictating no email-checking except during work hours.
For most employees after-hours emails becoming banned is still wistful thinking, so here are a few things you can do to unplug (including on Labor Day!) if work email is running your life:
Ask yourself whether you really need to check work email. “Does your job truly require you to work, or do you feel like you should be working when maybe in all actuality you may not need to?” asks Clark. “The former may be a true job requirement and if that is the case, then maybe there is not a whole lot you can do about that,” she acknowledges. But, she adds, if there is some room for flexibility and even if you feel guilty about it, if you can push off at least some of your workload to take time off, you should do so.
Use your automatic email response. This email feature makes it simple to immediately communicate to senders when you’re on vacation or observing a holiday and when you will be back in touch once you return to the office or come back online. Most often, employers, coworkers and clients can wait to hear back from you, and if you need to you can offer a way to reach you for truly urgent matters.
Put your phone’s “Do Not Disturb” setting to use. This handy feature will give you a temporary break from all the pings that indicate a new email, calendar reminder or text has arrived. Even setting the hours of 7 pm to 7 am as “do not disturb” hours can greatly increase the amount of down time you have.
Stop “pruning.” Do you catch yourself scrolling through your email inboxes and deleting or filing what you don’t need? While you may think of it as simply getting organized to stay on top of things, that’s time you could be spending talking to your child or spouse or getting a much-needed mental break from work. “There is a great deal of research showing the benefits of taking a mental break from work,” Clark says. “And actually, according to some recent research, mental breaks from work may be even more beneficial for engaged workers. So even if you love your job, it will be better for you in the long run if you can mentally disengage from work for at least a little while.” And that includes on Labor Day.
Do you check work email even on holidays and other days off?