Nataly Kelly vacationed far from her office in Lowell, but never far enough to disconnect. She answered e-mails in Morocco, reviewed survey questions in Malaysia, and, on an island off the coast of Chile, responded to a client even as a huge flock of Magellanic penguins waddled and preened nearby.
Then, at the end of a 2010 trip to Ecuador, Kelly’s BlackBerry was stolen, liberating her from answering e-mails and allowing her the simple pleasures of reading a book. Later this month, when she vacations in Europe, she said, she plans to leave her phone in the hotel safe during the day — “not just for the phone’s safety, but for my own.”
Kelly, the chief research officer at the Lowell market research firm Common Sense Advisory Inc., is among an increasing number of executives who are cutting the cord — or wireless connection, rather — when they go on vacation, discovering the office can indeed survive without them for a week or two. A recent survey of 1,400 chief financial officers by staffing firm Robert Half International found that half do not check in with their offices at all during vacation, twice the number that stayed unplugged two years ago.
The more laid-back attitude is largely the product of an improved economy, which has made employees more secure in their jobs, office matters not quite as pressing, and executives more confident that their staff can go it alone while they’re away, said Sean Dowling, Robert Half’s metro market manager in Boston. But it is also a realization by some that the need to stay connected to work can become an addiction — and can take its toll on people’s health, productivity, and families.
When John Picerne founded his housing development company, Corvias Group of East Greenwich, R.I., in 1998, it was a 24/7 culture. Picerne spent as much as half of his time off working. One of his employees spent so much time on the phone during a vacation that his wife told him, “Either you leave the company or you leave the family,” Picerne said.
So Picerne instructed his 850 employees that when on vacation, they were to activate their automatic “out of office” e-mail reply and stick to it. The company’s productivity and customer service rankings improved, he said. And the employee whose wife gave him an ultimatum? Still married.
“I don’t penalize people for checking in here and there,” said Picerne, 50, who now limits his iPhone checks to once in the morning while on vacation. “But it’s well understood and frowned upon if somebody is constantly checking in on vacation. That’s not good behavior.”
Bridget O’Brien spent a week this summer on Martha’s Vineyard, where she made a pact with herself that she would only check her work e-mail twice a day — a radical departure from a vacation to Europe six years ago, when she checked messages in the middle of the night.
“I can think things through more creatively and think more clearly because I’ve been able to disconnect,” said O’Brien, 50, a vice president at Vistaprint, the online marketing services provider with North American headquarters in Lexington.
On her next vacation, she said, she may just go cold turkey.
Overall, checking in to work from vacation is undoubtedly more common than it was a decade ago because of technological advances. Back then, staying connected while in a foreign country might have required finding an Internet cafe or buying a new phone that could make international calls; now it is as simple as switching to an international plan and watching the messages pop up on your phone.
But some are starting to put their phones away, which is not only beneficial for the person on vacation, but also a sign of faith in staff back at home, workplace analysts say.
Corey Thomas, president of Boston IT security company Rapid7, used to check his phone so often that his wife called it his mistress. “It was obsessive,” he admitted.
Then, a few years ago, his wife started booking cruises. Thomas, 36, realized she did this because he could not get a signal at sea, and he decided to change his ways. He soon found that disconnecting was not just good for his family, but also his employees.
“It sends a strong message to your team if you believe that everything falls apart if you’re not there,” he said. “It does demonstrate a lack of confidence.”
Smartphones have created a “spiral of expectations” that everybody should be connected to their jobs at all times, said JoAnne Yates, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, who has studied BlackBerry users. But people are realizing that never fully leaving work builds stress and causes tension at home, she said.
“As you use your BlackBerry or your iPhone, other people get your messages so quickly, people come to expect that of you,” she said. “It really has become a problem.”
Tracy Sinclair, vice president of global marketing for the Boston staffing firm Aquent, just returned from her first disconnected vacation, on Nantucket, since she graduated business school 10 years ago. In the past, she checked her smartphone frequently, and when she returned to work, it felt as if she had never left.
“Even if I wasn’t responding,” said Sinclair, 38, “I was constantly seeing the e-mails coming in, and I think we don’t realize how much that wears us down.”
Kelly, the chief research officer from Lowell, has an extra incentive to leave her phone in the hotel safe during her upcoming trip to Europe: her boss set disconnecting from work during vacations as an objective for Kelly to achieve.
But her husband, Brian, is not sure she will be able to give it up. And he might buy a toy cellphone to bring along — just in case.
“If I find her quivering in a corner with a cold sweat going on,” he said, “I’ll go, ‘Here sweetie, have a phone.’ ”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.