In a 24/7 world, disconnecting from work requires some creativity

With technology making it harder than ever to stop working, some companies have implemented policies that inspire employees to take a break.

(Scotty Reifsnyder)

It took a wake-up call on the playground to make Beth Monaghan realize she needed to better separate her life from her work. Her then 18-month-old daughter zipped down the slide and crashed into her — while she was checking her e-mail on her phone.

With that in mind, Monaghan last year instituted a policy called “7-to-7” at InkHouse, a Waltham public relations firm. The rule is simple: Nobody should check or send e-mail between 7 at night and 7 in the morning. So far, so good, and no clients have complained.

“What I’ve discovered is that very few crises take place between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.,” says Monaghan, a principal and cofounder of InkHouse. “We’ve set the expectation that we want our employees to have good personal lives. When we announced this policy, people cheered.”


At a time when the vast majority of workers own a smartphone, it’s easier than ever to connect to the office from anywhere, but it’s harder than ever to stop working. And as 24/7 threatens to render 9 to 5 obsolete, companies run the risk that their employees will burn out and quit. So they’ve had to get creative, instituting policies that inspire or even force employees to take a break.

Nearly 60 percent of North American employees report working during sick or personal days, and 44 percent say they worked on their last vacation, according to a recent survey by the information technology provider Softchoice.

In fact, we are taking less vacation time now than we have in the past 40 years, according to research firm Oxford Economics.

“Americans are not very good at taking holidays,” says Grant Freeland, a global leader at Boston Consulting Group, a Boston-based global management consultancy.

Management consultants are among the worst offenders. They often cancel vacations for consulting projects that drag on for months or even years, only to become exhausted from working incessantly. To combat this, BCG has mandated that employees schedule vacation days into the plan for every long-term project — and team members hold one another accountable for refraining from work on those days.


The process, which began as a field study with Harvard Business School a decade ago, is now in place at BCG offices all over the world. “Simply telling [employees] not to work on Saturdays doesn’t work,” Freeland says. “Unless you put a process in place and manage it as a team, you’re not going to reduce work hours.”

But some policies that sound as if they are encouraging employees to take more time off can have the opposite effect. Many tech companies are offering workers unlimited vacation time, for instance — but without company-imposed parameters, employees tend to limit themselves.

“I take less time off now because there’s no schedule that says I will lose the vacation time if I don’t take it and because the people around me are not taking big chunks of time off,” says Sue Troy, an editorial director at TechTarget, a technology media company in Newton.

Some companies go so far as to prescribe paid holidays that remind employees to spend time off on themselves, rather than on other obligations. Digital Loom, a Web design firm in Cambridge, counts an employee’s birthday as a holiday. Boston-based PR agency PAN Communications grants its employees a paid Friday shopping holiday between November and January, when family obligations tend to be even more stressful than work.


“It came about just because we realize that the holidays are a crazy time,” says Liz Aguilo, PAN’s human resources manager. “They don’t have to spend the day shopping.”

But Aguilo believes leading by example may be the best way to encourage employees to take time off.

“I think it needs to start from the top,” Aguilo says. “If the company sees executive management take time off, then they know we’re walking the talk and it’s OK. Our CEO uses his vacation, and he’s very rarely on e-mail during that time. That’s another way we encourage people to disconnect.”

Carmen Nobel is a freelance writer and an editor at Harvard Business School. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.