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the future of work

I'm conducting my own social experiment by booking a rustic cottage for my family without Internet access. That may seem like an obvious decision but most of our hotel booking decisions remains contingent on the strength of the Internet access. As much as I hate to admit it, from four to 40, we are addicts and I want to see what our family dynamic is like when we really, truly unplug.

In the workforce, many of us have a love-hate relationship with vacations. I can't recall one where I didn't lug a laptop along just in case. Even companies are recognizing the counter-productive behaviour of always being on and go to great lengths to get employees to relax. For example, General Electric joined the ranks of edgy startups offering unlimited time off to 30,000 of their employees presumably to convince them that in our 24-7 work environment, we need to find time to disconnect.

That's easier said than done. According to Randstad Canada's recent Workmonitor survey, 40 per cent of employees volunteer to handle work-related issues on their time off because they like to "stay involved." Non-vacation, personal time appears even more up for grabs with 57 per cent of Canadian employees saying they respond to e-mails and calls outside of working hours "immediately." That number jumps to 73 per cent for workers aged 18-24. The survey goes on to say that while these numbers demonstrate the Canadian workers' dedication, it leads to exhaustion and decreased retention rates.

Canadians are not unique in their desire to keep on working, according to Faith Tull, senior vice-president of human resources at Randstad Canada. In the U.S., 64 per cent of employees do not mind handling work in their private time and that number rises to 64 per cent in China and 71 per cent in India.

"We live in a mobile-driven business environment that creates a '24-7 connected' type of mentality. We can see this in the younger generations specifically who have grown up with technology and it's a norm for them. But we have to be very careful, because as our Workmonitor survey shows, the lines are being blurred between our personal lives and our work lives, and it's not surprising that more and more people are feeling overworked," said Ms. Tull.

Part of the problem is that both employees and employers develop the habit of staying connected early in their relationship, setting a bad precedent. To change the dynamic, Ms. Tull recommends engaging in an honest conversation with your employer.

"If an employee feels that staying connected is starting to have a negative impact on his health or personal relationships, they should bring it up to their manager and find another arrangement. Not everything is urgent or needs to be addressed right away, and this has to be clarified between the employee and their manager," she said.

It's not only the corporate world, but freelancers and startup founders also fall victim to the always-on cycle.

"Anyone who has been part of a startup knows that you always feel the need to respond to work queries. It is just part of the lifestyle that comes along with helping to create and grow a company or an idea," said Sean Gabel, a 24-year old member of the San Francisco-based startup 1Decision Suite , which conducts business intelligence for companies.

To counter this, Mr. Gabel starts preparing for a vacation a month in advance, communicating to his colleagues that he'll be out of office and establishing what they require from him. Two weeks before a vacation, he creates a list of what must be accomplished before he leaves and what can wait until he returns, communicating these plans with his colleagues.

"By the time I am getting in the car or plane to get to my destination, I have a general idea what could go wrong and what my teammates could need during my vacation. By having this general plan leading up to my vacation, this minimizes the e-mails that I receive and helps me prioritize what e-mails to respond to during my vacation," said Mr. Gabel.

If the e-mail requires more effort than a text, Mr. Gabel waits until he gets back to his hotel room at night or when he returns from holiday. He does not answer phone calls at all since he regards his vacation as a time to reflect on his life and work and create new ideas.

"I treat vacation like an athlete treats the off-season; I keep my skills sharp, but I hone my mental health by letting go and enjoying the moment," said Mr. Gabel.

So step away from that computer or phone if you are at the cottage, out of the country or enjoying a "staycation" at home. Your mental health and your clients will thank you.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises.

Twitter: @LeahEichler

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