Jason Lengstorf

Checking Slack and email during vacation is bad for you AND your team. Please stop doing it.

Taking real, fully disconnected time off is good for your health and for your team. But you have to ACTUALLY disconnect to get the benefits.

Jason Lengstorf
written by Jason Lengstorf

"When you're on vacation, be on vacation." It's a common refrain among folks who focus on healthy work culture. When we have time off, we should be fully disconnected. No Slack, no email — unplugged entirely.

I've always heard this advice and given it the same "yeah yeah yeah" that I use when my partner tells me I should drink more water or my doctor tells me to eat less cheese.

This is Good Advice™. I accepted it as true.

And I ignored it entirely.

I knew that I needed real breaks and I knew that not taking a vacation was a bad idea, but I also had fears:

  • What if the team needed me and I wasn't there to help?
  • What if I missed something important?

And I had feelings:

  • If I want to check in while I'm on vacation, that's nobody's business but my own!
  • I like my job — you can't tell me not to do things I like!

I've since learned that both my fears and my feelings were damaging to both me and to my team. I'm now very much a "when you're on vacation, be on vacation" person.

Taking a real vacation is good for your health.

A true vacation — one where we actually disconnect from work — has a huge positive impact on our physical and mental health. There's a mountain of research in the area, but let's pick out a few of the big facts.

You'll decrease your stress levels.

If you never fully disconnect, you never recover. Taking a even a short vacation has large, immediate effects on stress levels and perceived well-being.

While we're in the thick of our work, it can be hard to identify mounting stress and fatigue. Both creep up slowly in most cases without us noticing — what feels like "normal" stress to us today can be vastly different from "normal" a few months ago, but we could swear nothing has changed.

A true break lets those levels reset.

You'll be more creative.

Your subconscious is where many of your best ideas come from, and it can only function when your conscious mind is disengaged. Creative problem solving benefits significantly from "unconscious work", which requires periods of disconnect (called "incubation periods").

Leaving our work alone for a while gives our subconscious the chance to make new connections and work through problems. In that sense, taking breaks and vacations is actually a critical part of doing our jobs well.

You'll have more motivation.

Taking a real break restores motivation and focus. Even if we love our work, there are diminishing returns for doing the same thing every day. Shaking up our routine on occasion helps us remember why we like the things we like — and gives us the distance to recognize when we're out of alignment.

Even if you don't feel like you need a break, it's worth stepping away at least once a year to recharge the batteries.

Taking a real vacation is good for your team's health.

An impact of vacation that I haven't seen discussed much is its effect on the teams we work on. We all know that people need to take vacation and why that's good for the individuals, but as I've advanced in my career I've realized that regular vacation is also important for the health of teams.

You'll improve your team's resilience and autonomy.

Teams build resilience by learning to solve problems in different ways. If you never disconnect, the team doesn't learn how to solve problems without you. This creates a codependence that usually turns into resentment on both sides:

  • The team may grow to resent that you don't trust them enough to do things on their own.

It might feel like ignoring work during vacations is unfair to your team, but it's the kind thing to do.

You'll avoid sending mixed messages to your team.

When you take a vacation, your team has the expectation to leave you alone. If you show up in email and Slack, you're sending the signal that you're available. The team now has mixed signals and isn't sure if they should talk to you, which adds stress to the team.

This creates tension between stated goals and reality: the company values say not to bother folks who are on PTO, but the person who's on PTO is jumping into conversations.

If you're the person on PTO, you're putting people into a tough spot: you're okay with folks talking to you now, but if you get pinged later it might feel like an interruption to your vacation. Teammates might feel like they'll get in trouble for talking to you and for not talking to you, which is not where we want our teams to be.

The agreement needs to go both ways: if people who are working shouldn't be tagging people on PTO, the people on PTO need to respect that and not jump into conversations.

You'll avoid contributing to burnout culture.

Teammates who see people in Slack and email while "on vacation" get the message that it's normal and expected for people to always be available, even while on holiday. This is a big factor in burnout culture.

If we want our teammates to take the time they need to feel healthy and motivated, we need to make sure we're not creating exceptions for ourselves. We need to model the behavior we want to see on our teams, no matter what our position is in the reporting chain.

Be good to yourself. Be good to your team. Delete Slack and email while you're on vacation.

Taking real vacations can be challenging, but it's the right thing to do for both your own health and the health of your team. Use your PTO, and if you can swing it take at least a full week off at least once a year.

Real breaks help us heal, recharge, and build resilience in our teams. But only if we truly disconnect.