The Great Unplugging Debate

P:TO Takeaway

When it comes to unplugging, do what works for you. But consider how what works for you affects others.


Here’s my dirty little secret: I like to check email on vacation.

When that little red circle appears on my phone, I have a hard time ignoring it. What if it’s important? What if it’s just junk that would be easy to delete? What if it’s an invitation to a glamorous party? Okay, it’s never an invitation to a glamorous party.

I’m like many American workers—I have a hard time disconnecting from the office, because the office is no longer a physical place. It’s in our pockets, it’s at our fingertips. In our latest report, we found that only one-in-four Americans fully unplug on vacation. In fact, most employees (46%) report that they check in with work occasionally during their time off.

Whatever connectivity habits employees practice during their downtime, the overwhelming majority (78%) say they want the ability to access work if they choose to. But just because the desire to stay connected is common, doesn’t mean it’s the best option. With that in mind, let’s debate the merits of each option.

The Case for Staying Plugged In

The number one reason Americans fear taking time off is the mountain of work we return to. Staying on top of the email makes it easier to use the vacation you earn, even if means an hour or two of work on our days off.

Not knowing what is happening at work can be a source of stress for some people, especially when 30 percent of them don’t take time off because they feel no one else can do the job. If unplugging is going to create more stress than it alleviates, then it could diminish the health benefits of vacation.

Timing is everything, and the ability to stay plugged in can bring greater comfort in making vacation plans, as you know you’ll be available to check in if a crisis comes up while you’re away. Though if you do intend to stay plugged in, try setting parameters by clearly communicating when you will be available, both times of day and specific instances where your input is needed. These boundaries can help you enjoy your time off by not constantly being on, and setting a good example for fellow employees that vacation is not the time to be checking in around the clock and 24/7 responses aren’t required.

The Case for Unplugging

Putting the phone down and being present can make a big difference to your family, your friends, and yourself. In fact, in P:TO’s study of kids, we found that 3 in 4 kids say their parent is unable to disconnect from the office when home. Unplugging allows you to be in the moment and make the memories that define who you are.

Unplugging also keeps work stress from intruding on your vacation time, allowing you to enjoy a truer break and reap all the health benefits of time off. You’re more likely to return feeling rested, refreshed, and ready to work.

Lastly, you play a role in defining your company’s culture. So unplugging can set a good example for colleagues and direct reports, shaping a positive vacation culture for your entire organization that will lend to increased employee happiness, engagement, and retention.

The Verdict

There are reasonable arguments on both sides, but I might change my approach for my next vacation and shut my email off. Not just for my own benefit, but for that of my team at work. It has the added benefit of showing them through my actions that I trust them to move forward in my absence.

Make the choice that works best for you, your team, and fellow-vacationers. Whatever you do choose for yourself, think about the non-verbal messages you might be sending to others before you hit “reply.”


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