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Dr Zofia Bajorek

Out of office etiquette

Authors: Dr Zofia Bajorek

28 August 2014

A few weeks ago I went on leave, and like many others, one of the last things I did before happily skipping out of the office knowing that in just a few hours I would be pitching my tent in South Burgundy, was to apply my out of office reply.  Now, I have never really thought about these very deeply, and usually opt for the boring but informative:

“I am very sorry, but I am on annual leave and will not be in the office until xxxx.  I will deal with your query when I return”

This usually does the job – people either ring me back when I am back in the office on the date mentioned, or when I have finally read through and responded accordingly on my return.

However, it seems that others put a lot more thought into their out of office then I do.   Now, although this may be (well, I hope so) tongue in cheek, I was worried about the health and wellbeing of this individual.  Call me old fashioned, but when I am on holiday, the last thing I want to think about is work.  I turn off access to work emails (in fact, on many holidays I turn off my mobile phone completely) and catch up on the R&R that I need. 

The effect of smartphones on health and wellbeing has been discussed a lot recently, including how working overtime can negatively affect your health and wellbeing due to the increase in stress and fatigue caused by excessive work.  I would like to think that most, if not all, work environments do not have the cultural expectation that if you are away on annual leave you will be checking your work emails; and if they do, I would then hypothesise that the likelihood of having good health and wellbeing programmes may also be limited. 

Are these organisations putting themselves at risk of high sickness absence?  Some have already highlighted that this is a problem, and have developed methods to un-blur the work-life balance line. Maybe it is important to take stock of what is happening abroad, with the German minister calling for an anti stress law to ban out of work emails, or the French idea of disengaging with your e-mails after 6 o’clock.

Or you could introduce what the German carmaker Daimler has done – offering a out of office feature that informs correspondents that emails should be directed to someone else in the team, because all emails sent when on holiday will be deleted.  That’s right, gone!  The organisation implemented this system following Government funded research, and as a result trains managers to set a good work-life example, so that employee performance can be safe-guarded in the long run (it is not as altruistic as it first appears!).

But I question whether deleting out of office emails is the answer.  In fact, one way I like to ease myself in to work post annual leave is to take time to read over emails, note what has been happening in the office (both office politics and office gossip), take note of any important meetings or events that are coming up (or that have been placed in my calendar), recognise who wants what information, and therefore what particular projects require my attention. If all my emails were deleted, I would not have this gradual re-connection with office life. Would it not be more useful and important to highlight the awareness of the importance of having and implementing a healthy work-life balance at an organisational level?  Then maybe this will become a non-problem.

So when I next go on leave, I will continue with my boring out of office reply, and leave my emails where they should be….unanswered (but not undeleted) in my inbox!