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Why We Keep Checking Our Email on Holidays


Despite ample evidence for the benefits of unplugging, most of us have a hard time going out-of-office

A woman with curly hair checks her email on her phone while on the beach.

It’s a beautiful summer morning in whatever your version of paradise is. Maybe you’re sitting on a dock on a placid lake. Maybe you’re sipping espresso on a piazza in a bustling foreign city. Maybe you’re lounging in your PJs in your backyard. Wherever you are, you’re on vacation, with an entire day before you.

Which you’ll get to.


Just as soon as you reply to Hamid’s note about the Q4 projections. And ping Alex and Emile about next month’s team meeting. And pop in to see if there’s been any action on Zoe’s proposal.

And. And. And.

Feel a little familiar? If you, too, are prone to “just checking in” when you’re supposed to be checked out, well, you’re far from alone. A 2019 report that half of Canadians checked emails when on vacation made headlines. The pandemic only intensified the situation: More than two-thirds of respondents to a 2023 survey admitted to working while on holiday, and nearly half said they struggle to switch off when they’re not on the clock.

The thing is: We know better. By this point, most of us are aware of the benefits of disconnecting from work while we’re on holiday. We understand that digital downtime can make us happier, healthier, sharper, and less stressed. We get that breaks tend to make us more productive and creative in the long term.

So why is it so hard for us to do what we know is good for us and unplug? We asked experts in workplace behaviour, productivity and mental health to help explain what’s behind our impulse to refresh our inboxes when we’re supposed to be refreshing our minds, bodies and souls. Here, they pinpoint three reasons why we keep checking in with work during our vacation time.

Reason 1: We’re on constant alert

Let’s begin with the brain, because email and its many online-messaging offshoots have fundamentally altered the way many of us think and feel about work. Why?

Digital communication is ceaseless. Many — sometimes, most — conversations in the post-pandemic, knowledge-economy workplace happen asynchronously. Matters that might take 10 minutes to settle in person now routinely stretch over days of interruptive back-and-forth emails, texts and Slack or Teams messages. The total time devoted to the issue might be the same, but the prolonged duration of the dialogue can make work feel unending and unresolved. Our inboxes are an everlasting to-do list.

Digital communication is also erratic. We don’t know when people might respond to our emails, what their messages might include, and how their responses might affect us. We don’t know what will spark a parallel or offshoot conversation, or who might be cc’d. We can never be sure of what’s waiting for us. Our inboxes are portals of chaos and unpredictability.

These variables put our brains into a constant state of alert, or “firefighting mode,” according to Shamel Addas, Distinguished Research Fellow of Digital Technology at Smith School of Business, whose studies include learning how to make email more manageable. Since the medium compels us to keep checking in, to keep jumping from one conversation to another, and to keep dialogues going, Addas says, it creates a lot of cerebral clutter.

“The residue of an unfinished conversation lingers in your mind and keeps interrupting your thoughts, even when you’re not actively responding to the email,” he explains. “Multiply that by all the different conversations you’re having and all the different platforms you’re using to have them, and you can see why it becomes a problem.” Email creates a specific type of mental momentum that doesn’t necessarily stop by throwing on an out-of-office auto-reply and shutting a laptop.

Reason 2: We’re afraid of missing out

Our approach to email doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Over the past 30-odd years, the relentless creep of ever-more-seamless ways to connect has changed expectations about workplace communication. We each walk around with a tiny conduit to all the world’s knowledge — and most of its people — in our pocket, which means being connected is now the default. Disconnecting requires effort. And because we are inherently social beings who want to do well by the people who expect things of us, disconnecting is much easier to do in theory than in practice.

“We’ve been feeling increasing pressure to be instantly responsive and connected all the time, and it just keeps going up,” explains Ann Gomez, the founding president of productivity and collaboration consultancy Clear Concept Inc. and author of The Email Warrior and Workday Warrior. “We don’t want to miss out on things, and we feel a need to keep up.”

That pressure often stems from organizational cultures that normalize always-on communication — sometimes unintentionally. Think of a manager who fires off a note to the team from a beach in Cancun: She may think she’s helping to avoid bottlenecks created by her absence, but what she’s also expressing is “I feel compelled to check in when I’m off,” with a subtle inference of “and you should too.” Or think of a flex-work policy that allows employees to put in shifts at irregular hours: It can be terrific for someone whose life requires an atypical schedule but stressful for the colleague whose phone keeps buzzing at 10 p.m.

In this context, once-latent fears of missing out or worries about dropping balls can obsess us. Layer on tangible workload considerations (read: the dread of the insurmountable to-do list waiting upon our return from vacation), and is it any wonder we feel so drawn to our inboxes?

For these reasons, Gomez (a Smith School of Business MBA graduate) believes the onus is on organizations — not individuals — to re-establish expectations related to digital communication. “It’s not about willpower,” she argues. “It’s about practical policies that work.” This might be asking colleagues to delay delivery of messages until you’re back, for example, or defining what type of matter is truly urgent enough to warrant breaching a holiday blackout. (The list is usually shorter than expected.) Organizational processes like these won’t suddenly diminish your compulsion to check, Gomez says, but they can ease some of your FOMO anxiety and slash some of your email volume, which can, in turn, lessen the time and energy you spend fixated on your phone.

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Reason 3: We’re a bit uneasy with downtime

There’s another reason we struggle to disconnect, and it falls into the “tough love” category: Relaxing isn’t always relaxing. Some high-achieving people who derive great self-esteem from their work can find the vibe shift of vacation — with its lack of structure, deadlines and professional validation — a bit awkward, even when they’re doing things they love, with people they love, in places they love.

“Busyness can be very effective at distracting us from, and helping us to avoid, other experiences that we are less comfortable with,” says Mira Dineen, a registered social worker and the clinical director and founder of Juniper Wellness, which provides online psychotherapy to a clientele of mostly busy professionals. “Clients often tell me that, yes, it’s stressful to be working on vacation, but it might actually be more stressful for them to try to sit still.” If the holiday happens to feature stressors like sugar-crazed children, relatives with terrible opinions or a spouse with whom you’re navigating a rough patch, the dopamine rush of dashing off a few emails can feel comforting, even pleasant.

In Dineen’s view, a bit of introspection can reframe your outlook towards, well, Outlook. Why are you drawn to log on? Do you feel a sense of habitual obligation? Are you looking for a reason to avoid someone or something in your immediate proximity? Are you simply bored? “It’s really important to reflect deeply on what is motivating your particular drive to just check in and to sit with whatever is bubbling under the surface,” she says. Sound unpleasant? It can be, she acknowledges, but it’s no less necessary: “The more difficulty a person has with it, the more important it is to do.”

If it isn’t realistic or possible to unplug completely, Dineen recommends scheduling limited time — say, 10 minutes, max — for work that is truly urgent and time-sensitive. As for the rest? Even that lingering urge to just log on, real quick, to make sure nothing is on fire? Challenge yourself to avoid the temptation, by, for example, redirecting your attention to something fun (maybe to that novel that’s been on your bedside table for a month?) or reminding yourself that downtime is an investment in yourself. After all, she says, setting boundaries can not only protect your vacation time but can also allow you to reap the psychological, interpersonal and health benefits of truly unwinding.

Understanding what’s behind our urge to stay connected might not result in a totally unplugged holiday. Indeed, all three experts consulted for this article admitted to periodic and limited email monitoring during vacation. But if this awareness can keep our screen time from overwhelming our downtime, we’ll be better off for it. “We need rest, we need relaxation, we need to tap into other parts of ourselves that aren’t related to work mode,” Dineen says. “It really is essential for not only our mental health but also for a more well-rounded sense of identity.”