The other day, I was so overwhelmed with the number of emails that welcomed me back to the work week. So much so that I tweeted my frustration:
I love my job. I love that I have the opportunity to work on meaningful projects with smart people.
I don’t love the notion that the work never turns off. I’ve worked really hard to get to a healthy point in my career where I can shed light on this subject and start to really be honest about workload, turnaround expectations and general communication practices.
In fact, I go as far as to outline communication expectations (hours, days) in any contract that I sign with clients.
Working hard is great; expecting others to be always-on is not.
On some levels, I get it. When I was starting my business, I worked at all hours of the day, night and weekends because it’s where I could fit it in. It was a personal choice that I made, not one that affected others. I put that on me.
But I’m not talking about those instances.
I’m talking about:
- Bosses who ask you to take your laptop with you when you leave for a family vacation
- Co-workers who leave messages on your personal cell phone (or text) during non-work hours about project deadlines or the need for a spreadsheet
- Managers who, during a meeting that you’re not in say things like, “I know Sally is on vacation with her family, but it will be fine if we try and get on her calendar tomorrow for a quick hour.”
- Supervisors who ask you to jump on a conference call just to “listen in” or “be there for support” when you’ve called in sick for the day.
You know these types. Maybe you are these types.
Don’t be those types.
We have to stop expecting a 24/7 work ethic from one another. It seems we gave everyone a pass for a little while as we navigated the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic but truly, in this country, we don’t know how to take breaks and it’s Stressing. Us. Out.
Think about it: We are not guaranteed sick leave, maternity leave or parental leave. Nearly 50% of us in this country don’t take all of our vacation (many only get two weeks a year as it is). And with American remote work doubling over the last year, employees working from home are at least twice as likely to feel “overwhelmed” by stress when compared to employees who are working on-site.
Let’s empower one another
Pandemic or not, the 24/7 expectations of an ‘always-on’ work culture is not new to the United States.
It needs to stop.
We are missing out on time with our family, our kids, our friends. When we spend all day in meetings or answering emails, we leave less time for the actual work to be done. This vicious cycle leads us into nighttime hours, weekends and finishing that one-last-thing while on planes to visit relatives for a family vacation.
We need to empower one another to make changes. To take control of things that would make our lives a bit easier when faced with an ongoing rush of emails, excessive workloads or colleagues that don’t see the issue of working all hours of the day. We need to set expectations in our work lives so we’re able to fully enjoy our personal lives.
And while I completely understand that there is more merging of the two, more gray areas, it doesn’t give others the right to put undue stress or expectations on us (or for us to do it to ourselves; I know I’ve been guilty of that, too).
My empowerment tips for you
I am not perfect in this area and when I am pulled away from work projects due to kids’ schedules, new school schedules or other personal matters, I do tend to make up that time in the evenings. I try to keep these instances few and far between. I also don’t drag others into my evening work hours (see tip for that, below). And very early in my career I learned to put barriers around my weekends. They are for me and my family. Full stop.
A red flag for me in my career was when I would start feeling bad or anxious when I had to confess things like, “I’m sorry, I’ll be offline by 4 today to get my daughter to dance,” or, “Ooooh, I have a day off scheduled with my kids, so I can’t make that meeting work”. (Or, the worst was when I would make that meeting work anyway, even though my kids were counting on me to spend the whole day with them).
I needed to stop doing those things because otherwise, I was just enabling the problem.
As Oprah Winfrey said, “You have to teach people how to treat you.” Each year, I get louder and bolder about making that happen. Here’s what has worked for me. If you’re feeling the 24/7 burnout and are at a loss for how to start fixing it, I encourage you to try some of the following.
- I do not have a work email on my phone. I haven’t for at least the past 10 years. And whenever I have a team or direct reports, I do not require them to have work email on their phones. Email is a very disruptive form of communication. These pieces of information come to us on the senders’ timeframe, not on ours. And if we have to be accessing email on our phone, it ultimately means we’re already away from our desks for one reason or another—and we’re not available. If it’s an emergency (like, a TRUE emergency) they’ll call.
- I use my email scheduler tool so as not to disrupt/stress out others if I choose to work at odd hours. Sometimes it makes us feel better to crank through some emails or wrap up looming projects (I should probably unpack that whole issue another day, too). My point is that if I do find myself working late into the evening or on a day I previously scheduled to have off, I do not send my emails in real time. I schedule those messages to send during regular business hours. First, because it’s part of teaching others how to treat me (if they consistently see you working/sending emails late at night, they’ll expect faster turnarounds, responses back when they’re working at night, etc.) Second, I don’t want to cause undue stress to others—hey, if I choose to work odd hours, that’s my prerogative. In no way do I want to make others feel like that is my expectation of them.
- I do not give my cell phone number out for work purposes. I have a landline in my home office and if work-related issues need to be handled on the phone, that is the number that’s used. I realize this may not be an option for those who are working from home due to the pandemic, so alternatively, I highly recommend setting good boundaries on cell phone use and what you will/will not respond to during the day, nights or weekends.
- I use my out-of-office autoreply on my email. And I don’t feel guilty about it. I am well within my right to take a day—or a week—off work. And if someone is behind on a deadline they missed or needs something ‘ASAP’ when I’m out they’ll figure out another way to solve the problem or, they’ll wait until I return. Is it hard to keep from checking my email especially when my home office is a few steps away from my living room? Sure, it is. But each year it gets easier and easier to let that go.
- I schedule vacation days and stick to them. If you own your business here is my tip: Set aside time once a year to mark off key holidays, vacation days or days where your kids have off from school and then take those days off. Put them in your work calendar, your project management tool—wherever you can see them and be reminded of them when meeting or project requests come up. Even if you don’t work for yourself, the same holds true; approach your boss early and get those vacation days planned out.
- I am honest about my schedule and due dates. I know I’m not the only one who gets asked for last-minute requests or 24-hour turnarounds. And if you’re anything like me, you want to please everyone. This isn’t healthy. When asked for something, give an honest answer about your workload and do not waver. Refrain from being the “yes” person. It’s OK to say no. In fact, it can be freeing to do so.
Look, I work in marketing. I’m not saving lives. Maybe some of what I’m saying is easier for me than for others. Sure, I get that. But I will say this: It was super hard for me to pull email off my phone and to take my first vacation without my laptop in tow. But when I did those things, I realized that nothing burned down, the show went on without me and people survived. The work survived.
I’m also aware that some of these tips may not work for first responders, healthcare professionals or those who truly are saving lives. But for many of us, we’re creating our own stressors by allowing ourselves to be so accessible.
So, my advice is this: Give yourself permission to speak up. To turn off. To log out. Demonstrate to others how you want to be treated. Take your nights and weekends back.
The work will still be there on Monday.
About the author
Melissa is CEO and founder of Allee Creative, a content marketing agency in Minnesota. A mother of four (2 tweens and 2 teenagers!) she is also a dance mom, a soccer mom, a hockey mom (and team manager), a band mom and a dog mom. Melissa is also a fitness instructor and a wife. During the 25th hour of her day, she volunteers her time as part of the Longest Day Committee for the Alzheimer’s Association. She loves walking and reading and makes sure that, no matter what, she fits both into her routine each day. Follow along on her crazy ride by connecting on LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram.