It’s a big question: How exactly should you handle work emails when you’re not actually at work?
You could ignore them entirely, relying on your out of office to handle anything urgent. But then you risk missing something important, and have to wade through the sea of emails on your return.
Or you could keep an eye on your inbox in half-holiday mode, watching out for anything important and deleting the spam so you’re not overwhelmed when you head back to the office.
Or you could be really hardcore and ignore all emails while you’re away, then mass delete them when you’re back for the bliss on inbox zero. If you fall into this camp, you are braver than we are.
We’re told over and over that it’s important to have a work-life balance and shut off when we’re not on the clock, but smartphones can make that near impossible.
We can see the emails racking up, and whatever we do we’re guaranteed stress as a result. Either we choose to work when we shouldn’t be, or prepare ourselves for a whole lot of admin once we’re done. Or we end up doing so much work in preparation for going away that it hardly feels like we’ve been to the beach for a week.
Is one option better than the other? Is there a way to truly free ourselves from the strain of our office inbox?
Life Coach Directory member Chris Cooper reckons the key to getting a genuine break is preparing before you head away, and promising yourself you won’t look at your inbox at all when you’re not working.
That means having a clear out-of-office email that outlines not only who the sender should contact while you’re away, but also makes it clear that you absolutely will not be looking at your inbox for the next week or so.
To achieve a proper break at the weekends and evenings, it might even be worth setting up an out of office for these times, or adding your working schedule in your signature to warn people not to expect a response if they’re getting in touch after 5pm.
Life coach Chris Cooper’s plan for handling your inbox when you’re away:
Let people who you are in regular contact with know when you are going on holiday. Drop this casually into conversation and include it within emails. This way, people will know the dates you won’t be available. In the build up to going away, email people to let them know an alternate point of contact for while you’re on holiday.
Provide a full handover for your manager and colleagues so they know what to expect while you’re away. Allow them time to check in with you on this before you finish for your break.
Allow some time on your last day to go through all outstanding correspondence and deal with this before you finish – delegating if appropriate.
Set your out of office to include points of contact for people to get in touch with while you’re away. Be sure to state that you won’t be contactable at all during the dates of your holiday. You may also want to consider including your first day back within the date range to provide some breathing space when you return.
Schedule some time in your diary on your first day back specifically to respond to emails that accumulate while you’re away. Respond to messages that only need a quick response right away, and leave those that require a longer response until you’ve been through everything. Consider scheduling your emails to be sent later in order to reduce emails responses while you’re doing this.
‘If you work for someone else, use holiday time to unplug and disconnect from work,’ Chris tells Metro.co.uk. ‘The best way to do this is to plan a strategy for the build up to your holiday and your first few days back in the office.’
He recommends that if you often find yourself tempted to hit the emails when you’re away, it’s important to talk to HR or your line manager. You can give them a head’s up of when you’re leaving, explain that you’re really trying not to check emails while you’re away, and get reassurance that they won’t hit you with anything urgent when you’re not in the office.
Basically, it’s all about managing expectations and setting boundaries before you go.
Along that same theme of preparation, psychologist Rachel Lewis suggests using the day before you leave for holiday as an official admin day, getting everything ready for the period of time you’re off.
‘Don’t schedule any meetings and have that day as a ‘clearing the decks’ day,’ she tells us. ‘Make sure you deal on this day with all you can, delegate any necessary work to your colleagues or advise any others when you will be out of contact and for how long.
A break from working and accessing emails allows you to decompress and allows your attention to be directed more fully to other areas of your life
‘I would also recommend using a process called preventive planning, where you plan not just for what will happen, but for what ‘may’ or ‘could’ happen – for instance, what would happen if a project deliverable changes and is needed for while you are away; or what if your client calls unexpectedly and wants to discuss something? By looking at contingencies and taking a proactive approach you will be able to minimise your stress.’
Take her advice and make sure to keep that final day clear of any meetings or other responsibilities. We’ve all experienced the mad rush to get everything done before going abroad – make it easier for yourself and expect the day to be taken up by organisation and planning.
Rachel also advises leaving your laptop at home and taking your work email off your phone, to get rid of the temptation to peek in your inbox.
She explains that while you might feel like you have a handle on your stress by just checking your emails once a day or diving in just before bed, it really is important for holiday time to be completely removed from work – and that includes acknowledging your work emails in any way, shape, or form.
‘To be able to continue in a productive way, we need to recover and therefore a time away from work where you shut off is going to be better for mental health,’ says Rachel.
Is it better to ignore your emails entirely when you’re away? (Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)Chris agrees: ‘The holidays are a vital time to switch off from the stress we may feel while we are at work. It’s really important for our mental health to allow ourselves some downtime from work.
‘Not dealing with stress is a significant factor in burnout, which was recently reclassified as a syndrome by the World Health Organisation. The WHO are currently working on guidelines for dealing with stress in the workplace.
‘Due to technology, it’s possible to be connected with work at all times of the day, wherever you are. Therefore, it’s important to set boundaries, particularly when it comes to things like work emails.
‘If you choose to you respond to emails around the clock, people will come to expect you to do it. Doing this may also contribute to the stress of others who may feel a response is expected when you email them late at night or on a weekend.’
So if you can’t curb your email checking habits for your own sake, do it for the good of your workplace culture.
It’s natural to experience the temptation to check in, though. Blame it on a strange form of FOMO, causing you to simultaneously worry that you’re missing out on the exciting stuff happening back at work and that everything’s gone to sh*t while you’re away.
It’s key to rewire that thought process rather than beating yourself up every time you slip back into your inbox.
Clinical psychologist Dr Catherine Huckle explains: ‘Practise being mindful of your thought processes – notice when thoughts switch to work, make a conscious decision about whether you want to use some time thinking about work and if the answer is yes, put some boundaries around it (for example, when a goal is reached or when an amount of time has lapsed).
‘Notice if thinking about work is becoming repetitive and triggering unpleasant feelings, and if it is, switch your attention by distracting yourself or starting a new task.
‘In CBT we talk about the 2 minute rule – if you have been thinking about something for two minutes and have not made progress on solving the problem or discovered any insights, and if negative feelings are being triggered, that rumination needs to be interrupted by distracting or doing something different.’
If going cold turkey on the work emails feels impossible, don’t be too harsh in your self-criticism. If not checking your emails is causing you more stress than checking them would, it’s perfectly reasonable to adjust your plan.
Just make sure you maintain some boundaries, and don’t let your entire holiday get taken up with work.
Catherine says: ‘If you are becoming increasingly anxious about emails and finding it hard to disconnect from thinking about work, or your role demands that you stay in touch, ring-fencing a small amount of time each day might help.
‘It can be important to set yourself some guidelines for this – for example, I’ll delete any emails that I don’t need, I’ll diarise any new appointments that have come in, I’ll only respond to emails with a strict time pressure.
‘If work thoughts are bothering you outside of the time set aside you might gently remind yourself to postpone this thinking and then move your attention to something else.’
Whether you check your emails occassionally or manage to completely avoid them, you’ll likely still return to a digital pile-up of unread mail. Again, dealing with the sense of overwhelm is all about preparation.
Hopefully, your detailed out of office will have helped to reduce some of the emails arriving in your inbox, but to deal with the remainder and catch up on anything you’ve missed, it’s worth planning in a day that’s just for easing back into work.
Include this in your out-of-office timings so you’re not getting new work while dealing with the old stuff, and add to your diary that for this one day your only responsibility is dealing with admin.
‘Think of it as a phased return to work after your holidays,’ says Catherine. ‘This way, you will have given yourself vital recovery time, and the gradual return process will then enable you to deal with the emails before you have to engage fully in your day to day work.’
Or if you want to hit mass delete, just include one vital line in your out of office before you depart: ‘if the content of your email is important, please re-send on my return from leave’. If people know that you plan to delete all emails sent within a certain window, they’ll follow your instructions for the really important stuff.
Above all, remind yourself that your holiday isn’t just a time to work remotely. It’s a time to genuinely switch off, recharge, and look after your mental wellbeing. You’re supposed to return to work refreshed – give yourself the time and space to do that, and leave your inbox at your desk.
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