Written by: Etain Case
Does the thought of returning to work to an overloaded inbox fill you with dread? Do you wait in uncomfortable anticipation as you turn on your laptop for the first time in weeks? Almost 1000 emails waiting to be actioned! This alongside the myriad meetings and other obligations that will demand your time from the moment you get in.
Cluttered inboxes are an unfortunate part of our modern corporate culture. In the ‘80s one might have returned from holiday to face a blinking answering machine, in the ‘90s a stream of faxes spilling out the machine like a giant paper centipede.
Email makes our lives so much easier – or does it? The wonders of out-of-office – unheard of in the days of phone messages and fax machines, but with the ability to tell the world about your absence, alleviating you of the burden for a few blissful weeks. At least the world knows you are away, knows you are not contactable until September and you… CAN. FINALLY. RELAX.
But let’s be honest. You’ve been checking your inbox since you arrived on holiday; every day before dawn and last thing at night. As a senior leader and primary crisis contact, you feel the need to be available – that being completely disconnected is not only impossible, but potentially irresponsible.
Studies have shown that multiple phone checks eventually begin to occur on an unconscious basis, which can eventually lead to obsessive, automatic and difficult-to-break behaviours.
Looking through the lens of psychotherapy, we can begin to understand what drives this need. Addiction, obsession, social avoidance, or even separation anxiety can all underpin the phone-checking ritual. Perhaps one is trying to avoid social situations or needs an excuse to become detached from family duties. Another consideration is the attachment theory: When we lack a significant parental figure in our lives, we become inclined to forge attachments to other things. And what better attachment than the piece of technology that never leaves our side?
Ask yourself: Are you checking your phone in an effort to detach yourself from your surroundings? Is it a way to ignore the children or not face up to other family duties? How does this affect your relationships with those around you?
Taking all of the above into consideration, there still remains the issue of how one stays contactable without being an inbox slave. Here are some helpful suggestions:
- Be crystal clear which situations warrant being contacted during your holiday. Don’t compromise – if it’s something that can be dealt with by another member of the team or can await your return, don’t allow yourself to be drawn in.
- Prior to going on leave, prepare a list of the contacts that can reach you in case of emergency. Embed a process whereby those contacts are given express instructions to only contact you if it’s urgent. Perhaps a PA or assistant can monitor your inbox, flagging your messages in order of relevance/urgency.
- Ensure all staff know about your out-of-office email procedure and to know to only contact you if absolutely necessary. (Maybe leave your out-of-office on for an extra day to help you focus on getting caught up).
- Remember the telephone? We’ve become so used to communicating over email, that we often pass up the opportunity to just make a call instead. Insisting that anything urgent be dealt with over a phone call instead of email, will drastically reduce the need to constantly ‘phone check’.
- Have a day at home after your holiday which is dedicated to inbox duties. This will provide the mental space to disconnect from your holiday and reconnect to work without other first day pressures and interruptions.
In the hyper-connected digital world that we now inhabit, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to switch off from our devices for any significant length of time. There are now well-documented studies of the impact this usage is having on our mental health. Yet despite this knowledge we remain committed to our digital devices, checking our phones up to 120 times per day on average.
Subconscious behaviours are one possible explanation for this growing phenomenon. Incessant phone-checking can emerge for reasons that extend beyond the need to stay ‘connected’. Perhaps a missing parent in early childhood and the subsequent void it created spurned a need for substitutes. Psychotherapeutic consultations can provide the link between these early-life influences and later-life behaviours for more clarity, understanding, and resolution.