4 Tips for Unplugging on Vacation

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: August 25, 2017

As people head off for vacation, the one thing that most will take with them is the office. Unwinding and unplugging are not synonymous when work is just one phone call, email or text away.

Technology, which makes connectivity possible in all but the most remote places, is only part of the problem. Thanks to globalization, vacations in one part of the world are treated as business as usual in others. Executives’ commitment to their responsibilities and competitive personalities (What am I missing when I’m gone?) also play a role. But the biggest culprit of all might be a failure to plan. Clearing the desk to have a week off is hard work—and taking a vacation is a project in itself. But planning better for downtime, and negotiating with family and friends for when plugging-in is a must, will help you have a much better time.

Related: 14 Science-Backed Reasons to Disconnect Over the Weekend

The fact is most of us stay tethered to the office while on vacation. Three-quarters of executives, out of a survey of 1,600 professionals, admitted to connecting to work at least once a day while on vacation, including more than one-third (34 percent) who said they checked in multiple times a day. Only 3 percent said they do not check in with the office while they’re away. In addition, nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) said they have cut short or canceled a vacation due to work pressures.

These behaviors fly in the face of research that shows the positive impact of taking a vacation, from the health benefits of relaxing and de-stressing to improved productivity and a greater sense of urgency in getting things done when returning to the office. Maybe that’s why almost all executives (90 percent in the survey) do take at least one weeklong vacation. But being gone does not mean being fully away from the office. It’s a common sight at any amusement park, for example: parents standing in line with their children, reading email on their phones. It can be a problem; half of survey respondents said they’ve argued with a spouse or partner about working while on vacation.

Many executives blame the need to “put out fires”—a legitimate reason given the fact that technology has squeezed response expectations today down to hours or even minutes. Plus, companies are running leaner these days, which means when a team member or leader is out of touch, there are fewer available staff to cover key accountabilities and progress can slow or grind to a halt. That lack of slack in the system means more people feel compelled to stay plugged in.


Nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) said they have cut short or canceled a vacation due to work pressures.


Anyone wanting to weed out the strings of “reply all” emails that can clog an inbox during a seven-day holiday can understand the temptation to log in while on vacation. Indeed, 18 percent of survey respondents cite avoiding an increased workload upon return to the office as their primary reason for not unplugging. But for some executives, staying connected is somewhere between an impulse and an addiction—25 percent of survey respondents said they stay connected because they enjoy it.

These statistics tell a sobering story not only of how work gets in the way of vacation, but also how perception can lead to changing norms across the workplace. When the boss is always responding to emails while away, colleagues and direct reports get the impression that being unplugged on vacation is a bad career move. That attitude becomes engrained in the organization, and soon it becomes an unwritten expectation that people will connect and respond while they’re supposed to be away.

Related: Stop Feeling Guilty About Work-Life Balance

Given these prevalent attitudes about staying connected, it’s no surprise that executives are wary of unlimited vacation policies. Even if they could take off as many days as they wanted, three-quarters of executives said they would not increase their number of days off. Indeed, some would take fewer days due to worries that their bosses or colleagues might think they aren’t working hard enough. That fear is a hard taskmaster, driving people to keep one foot in the work world while the other is on a beach or a mountain trail.

But there are solutions. Here are four tips to plug in less and relax more.

1. Work to play.

If you want to have a week away, you need to work ahead, getting things done in advance and scheduling important calls before/after vacation. That won’t happen if you don’t think about vacation until 4 p.m. on the Friday before you leave.

2. Refine your filter.

Have a good internal filter about when and how to connect to the office while you’re away. Although staying connected has becomes a badge of honor of sorts, it might not win you any prizes if you’re not careful. If people know that you’re on vacation and yet still responding to every email that’s not urgent, they’re going to wonder why. Is it hyper-vigilance, or a need to know that supersedes the need to relax?

3. Have a designated hitter.

Ask colleagues to back you up (you’ll return the favor when they’re away). Take advantage of the opportunity to delegate certain responsibilities to a junior colleague who will benefit from the experience of having a stretch assignment.

4. Set plug-in times.

Arrange in advance when you’ll be plugging in—for example, looking at email early in the morning or in the evening. Negotiating with your significant other can avoid conflict, and will keep you from looking at your screen instead of the scenery.

Because unplugging completely during vacation is too much of a stretch for most of us, a little pre-planning can go a long way to promote relaxation—instead of frantically texting at poolside or surreptitiously taking a call behind a palm tree.

Related: A Workaholic’s Guide to Relaxing on Vacation

As an executive with Korn Ferry, Mark Royal also plays a leading role in directing annual research with Fortune magazine to identify the World’s Most Admired Companies and uncover the business practices that make these companies highly regarded and highly successful. Moreover, his research has been published in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, The Journal of Compensation and Benefits, and The Journal of Organizational Excellence and also featured in Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Human Resource Executive, and Workforce Management.