· 2 min read · Features

Out of office etiquette

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The automatic out of office replies open up a can of worms when it comes to wording, tone and style. However, perhaps we should pay more attention to promoting a better work-life balance.

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 was to set up 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 again 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 than I do. 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. If they do, I would hypothesise that their 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 – an out of office feature that informs correspondents that emails should be directed to someone else, because all emails sent while that employee is 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 safeguarded 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 and catch up. If all my emails were deleted, I would not have this gradual re-connection with office life. Isn't it more useful to highlight 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!

Zofia Bajorek is a researcher in the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at The Work Foundation