Technology makes it impossible to take a vacation from work

Even when workaholic Americans manage to swing a vacation, 48.9% confess to checking work-related emails and voice mails while away, according to a survey released this June by The Travel Leaders Group.

The digital and telecommunications revolution held the sunny promise that workers could telecommute from the beach and take vacations they might not have otherwise have been able to because they could work remotely. Instead, employees increasingly find normally scheduled vacations interrupted with work demands, said Kenneth Matos, senior director of research for the Family and Work Institute in NYC.

“Clients text me all the time and want to hear back from me: New Yorkers want instant gratification,” said Anjie Cho, 37, an architect who, ironically, specializes in holistic design incorporating feng shui principals in her eponymous design firm.

“Even when I go visit my family, I take my work with me,” recounted the the Lower East Sider. During an April visit to Disneyland with her nieces, “I answered all calls,” Cho sighed.

Cho is of two minds. On one hand, she feels she must be instantly responsive to be successful. But “I’m also at fault,” she acknowledged. “I’m very service oriented and have a personal need to get things off my plate.”

Businesses that expect employees to work during the time they are officially signed out are businesses that “have not done a good job of succession and emergency planning: Those are organizations with more stressed employees, employees who make more mistakes and have more health and wellness issues because there is no ability to say, ‘this can be covered when I’m not here,'” Matos said.

“I just got back from vacation and my brother and I were both hounded like crazy,” by their employers, said Tom, 52, a technical designer for a fashion company. Tom, who lives in Washington Heights, and his brother strolled through Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as “my brother spent half the day putting out fires on his phone and answering emails.”

Staying in contact with the office is simply the new reality, rationalized Tom, who declined to use his real name because, he said, both he and his brother “are grateful to have jobs” — especially after watching the careers of colleagues implode following the 2008 down turn.

Tom and his brother are luckier than some people who can’t or won’t take time off in our no-vacation nation: The same survey revealed that 38.5% of respondents planned to leave at least some of their vacation days on the table this year.

Several trends have conspired to keep people connected when they’re supposed to unplug and recharge. Downsizing and “doing more with less” (i.e. fewer workers) has demolished the redundancy that Matos says is essential in healthy workplaces.

The erosion of unions — which tend not to support unpaid labor — is also a factor. (Only 11.3% of American workers belong to a union today, compared to 20.1% in 1983, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Cell phones and telecommunication advances permit bosses to extend what was once a respected eight-hour day into a now endless one, with everyone, theoretically, within reach.

It turns out that superiors (who now often double as line workers) are the most likely to keep beavering away, even when they can wrangle a few days off: One report by the Families and Work Institute concluded “employees with the greatest job responsibilities and demands are those most likely to work during their vacations: managers and professionals, higher earners, employees who work the longest hours, employees who are work-centric, and those who typically work outside normal work hours.”

The rise of the entrepreneurial and contract economy – an especially prevalent trend in NYC – also drives worker to never, ever disconnect.

“We’re always attached: It’s a 24/7 work day,” for conscientious professionals, chorused Michael Hagen, 40, a commercial real estate broker and director of Capstone Realty Advisors. He checks his email “at least once an hour” while vacationing with his family. “You have to be responsive: If you’re not, your competitors will be,” Hagen said.

Do his kids miss daddy’s undivided attention?

“My daughter is just as bad as me – even worse! I’m checking email and they’re playing video games!” laughed the Babylon, LI father of an 11-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

It’s often a worker’s own force of habit that keeps them connected, noted Gary Kunath, founder of The Summit Group who offers a course, “Mastering Life Balance: Achieving Greatness at Home and at Work,” to Fortune 500 companies.

“It’s muscle memory!” said Kunath. “They think the roof will cave in when they’re not there or the work they’ll face when they return will be insurmountable,” he explained.

Subordinates of workaholic managers may face the most stress in trying to clock out. Trying to abandon an office headed by workaholics who expect others to behave as they do — even temporarily — can be “like trying to leave a cult,” with accusations of disloyalty and fears for one’s career, Kunath said.

It’s an American tragedy that so many workers remain on the electronic leash when they are supposed to be uncoupling from their work identity, developing other identities, exploring the world, becoming inspired, and bonding with loved ones, said Kunath, who also wrote a book called, “Life. . .Don’t Miss It.”

The purpose of work, after all, is to provide you the life you want, and it’s useful to wonder if you think your colleagues will be present in your dotage, he counseled.
Kunath advises setting sensible boundaries and learning “the power of no.” His own career did not fluorish until he learned exactly that: “A funny thing happened,” Kunath recounted, “I became so valuable that people waited for me. If you’re truly valuable, people work with you so they can get your contribution.”