Our Out-Of-Office Email Situation Is Out Of Control

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
Last month, after a year of working through the pandemic with very few vacation days and certainly no luxurious trips, I took a week off. The burnout I was experiencing was intense and I knew I needed to enact some strict boundaries on work-related communication. I set my Slack status icon to the little palm tree and even deleted the app off my phone entirely so I wouldn’t see if someone DMed me, which I knew would tempt me to check it. That was simple enough, but then came time for me to deal with the real scourge of my professional life: email.
I crafted an automatic out-of-office response that clearly stated how long I would be away and beamed with pride at my assertiveness. I was putting my foot down and protecting my sanity after a long year of staring dead-eyed at message after message that began "Hope this email finds you well" from my tiny makeshift at-home desk as the world crumbled around us. But it wasn’t that simple. The relaxed state I was finally able to achieve after a week of not thinking about work was quickly shattered when I opened Gmail the day I returned. Why? Because I had 1,400 unread emails.
My first instinct was to cry. My second was to close my laptop and fling it out the window onto the subway tracks just outside my apartment. My third was to simply delete every single note in my inbox and declare email bankruptcy. That last strategy would certainly save me time and emotional distress. But was it inconsiderate to those who had reached out? And, what if I missed something that is actually important?
Ultimately, I did take the time to comb through every email I received while on vacation. It took forever and was mentally draining, and I have to say, there really wasn't anything in my inbox that would cause catastrophic consequences had I missed it. The majority of the emails didn't even warrant a response. The exercise felt both pointless and painful, which got me thinking: In the future, perhaps I should just immediately delete all the emails I receive while on vacation. If I tweaked my out-of-office response slightly and asked those with important messages to please follow up on the date I arrive back, I'd never again having to sift through a mountain of emails like some derange 21st-century prospector whose sad version of gold is pertinent information in how to perform their capitalist duties more efficiently.
After coming up with my post-vacation inbox bankruptcy strategy, I decided to seek out an expert on email anxiety to see if they approved of this route. I reached out to Jocelyn K. Glei, author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done, and Cal Newport, author of A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. But here’s the thing about people who write entire books on email's potential for destruction: They're very good at ignoring emails. Perhaps their unresponsiveness was my answer that it is okay for me to just delete all my emails after returning from vacation. Still, I felt like I needed someone to actually sign off on the approach.
Finally, I was able to speak with Dr. Alice Boyes, PhD, author of The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points and the forthcoming Stress-Free Productivity: A Personalized Toolkit to Become Your Most Efficient, Creative Self. According to Dr. Boyes, the strategy you employ for your emails while taking time off should all depend on the way you use your email for work on a day-to-day basis. "I think that it really does come down to: What is your core work? Is communicating your core work?" she tells me over the phone. If you work in communications or public relations, for instance, Dr. Boyes explains it probably isn't appropriate or practical to set your inbox to zero the second you log on after vacation. However, she has other strategies that could help with email overload.
I shared my 1,400 email problem with Dr. Boyes and told her that the vast majority of those messages I had received didn't warrant direct responses from me. She suggested that, in this case, I could make a rule that I would automatically delete emails that weren't directly addressed to me. That means promotional emails, reply-alls, and the ever-popular CCs for "visibility." Of course, to find those, it might take scanning subject lines or doing a search in Gmail, but that's way better than reading every individual message, right? I was on board.
Another brilliant way Dr. Boyes combats email fatigue for herself is to have two different email accounts. Now, I know what you're thinking: How can having more inboxes to check make life less stressful? Well, one of Dr. Boyes' email addresses is more public-facing; it's the one anyone could find, and it serves as a catch-all for messages from people she doesn't know — anyone she hasn't worked with before or spam, for example. She gives out her second address more selectively, only to those with whom she's actively working or has an existing personal or professional relationship. Filtering emails this way relieves the pressure of having to read or respond to messages that come to the public-facing inbox. Plus, she can employ my dream policy of just completely disregarding emails when she needs to.
"I think this system that I've got works quite well," Dr. Boyes says. "Everything that comes on that work email from people I don't know, I essentially can choose to ignore." The multiple email addresses approach does open you up to missed opportunities, she points out. (Although I will say, her public-facing email address is the one I reached out to in order to schedule this interview, and she got back to me within 10 hours). But depending on who you are and where you are in your career, the risk of missing messages could be worth it. This is really where we have to individually square our ambition with our mental wellbeing.
When it comes to eliminating the stress of a post-vacation email pile-up, Dr. Boyes says the real issue is that the automatic out-of-office response has come to be completely meaningless, especially among Americans. It seems like around this time every single year, Twitter is flooded with memes that compare the way Europeans craft their out-of-office responses — "I'm on vacation until September. Don't expect a response" — to the way Americans use theirs — "I'm in the hospital having emergency surgery so I might be slower to respond."
As I said, I was quite pleased with myself for not including "slower to respond" in my recent out-of-office message. I was deliberately transparent that I would not be checking my email while I was on vacation. But unfortunately, the way that our culture regards these notes renders the word choice somewhat inconsequential. "One thing I've noticed is that you never know whether the out-of-office auto-response is real or fake," Dr. Boyse says. It's not uncommon to receive an auto-response, and then shortly afterward to receive an actual response from the person you emailed. "I think people plan to do certain little things on their vacation, like replying to emails that only require quick responses, but then that adds up and more tasks creep in," Dr. Boyse says. "When you open the door to that stuff, everything ends up being more than you expected, and it really does pull you out of vacation mode." This, in turn, skews expectations for everyone involved. "I think no one trusts out-of-office responses anymore. When people get them, they think, 'Oh, that just means that it's going to maybe be a few hours or the person will probably reply to me tonight rather than during the workday,' rather than people thinking it really means that they're not going to hear back for a week."
So how do we escape this bogus out-of-office email hell we're living in? Because this is a cultural issue, I don't think there's a simple answer, especially for people in junior positions. But, if you are able to actually let your out-of-office response be your only line of professional communication while you're on vacation, it can make an impact on more than just your own mental health. "Try to model it for other people. Even if you can't do it for yourself, do it for other people so that other people are not feeling that pressure." The more we respect out-of-office responses and let them do the talking, the closer we can get to one day living in a society where "select all > trash" is the first easy step back into work after a relaxing vacation.

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