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On Friday, I sent a routine email and almost instantly received a unique auto-reply: "Out of office with limited email access. Returning by 2 p.m."

She hadn't gone on vacation for several days. She wasn't traveling for the day. The response implied instead: I'm away from my desk for a matter of hours and I'm so concerned about incoming emails that I'm setting a half-day auto-responder.

I emailed the woman again to find out what prompted that message, and haven't heard back yet. So instead, I've spent the past three days mentally cataloguing every potential scenario that would result in my own similarly short-term out-of-office response. Here's what I've come up with so far:

Nothing.

With our always-connected culture, there's often no such thing as set "office hours." You're always on--whether you're in the office, at home, or anywhere in between.

It's a dangerous place to be. If you're a boss, you're tacitly encouraging the people around you to always be on. Maybe you can handle it well. Maybe they can't. And if you're immediately responding to every single email, you're setting an external expectation--to everyone you know--that you're always available.

Plus, the risk of burnout and related health issues is real. Last year, Inc.com columnist Glenn Leibowitz wrote about a study that examined the effects of checking email outside of work hours. "Expectations around responding to email after normal work hours result in anxiety, which adversely affects the health of employees and their families," Leibowitz summarized, before directly quoting the study itself: "The mere expectations of availability increase strain for employees and their significant others --even when employees do not engage in actual work during nonwork time."

As someone familiar with the adrenaline spike that comes with an after-hours Slack notification, that feels right to me. So, take this as a friendly Monday reminder: Remember to unplug a little. Your work is unlikely to collapse because of it.

And if someone panics because you haven't responded to their email within minutes? Barring a real emergency, that's probably their problem.

Not yours.

Published on: Nov 11, 2019