‘My Boss Says I Should Always Be Available on My Days Off’

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Dear Boss,

I’m a managing attorney working in-house in a large corporation. I manage another attorney and two paralegals currently, and expect my team to grow in the next two years. We have a policy that there always needs to be coverage when someone is on PTO. Generally, that’s not a problem. Recently though, the attorney I manage and I both wanted to take PTO on the same day. I told him to go ahead and take it, and I proposed to my boss that I would check email regularly but otherwise would also keep my PTO day — it would likely be a quiet day anyway. My boss approved this plan, but said (I’m paraphrasing), “Since you’re a manager, I expect you to always be available on PTO anyway.” 

That was a record scratch moment for me. 

I’m highly compensated and understand that the trade-off for that is access and time. Earlier in my career, I would joke, “They’re not paying me enough to do XYZ,” but I know that at this point, I am in fact paid to be available more than 40 hours a week, or in the early morning/evening/weekends as the job requires. The thought of needing to be available every day though, with potentially no respite — that feels impossible and is definitely not worth the salary. My boss and I work well together and occasionally run into differences that she usually chalks up to generational differences (I’m a millennial; boss is Gen X, with about 18 years between us). I also know that my boss is a workaholic (as much as I work, she works more — at least, I perceive it that way).   

I’m feeling a little panicked about this, in part because I’m overwhelmed right now. I have time off planned in two weeks, during which the rest of my team will be available. I have a good plan for coverage, and I really, really need to be able to disconnect for this vacation. Is it unreasonable to be able to expect to? Is there a certain level at which you have to expect that boundaries and work/life balance can’t be sustained or are fundamentally incompatible with a role? 

This is a big enough deal for me that I would consider taking a pay cut to move into a position with a better work/life balance. I don’t aspire to be a general counsel because to me it does represent having basically no boundaries. But I’m several levels below that, and I hate the idea of capping my development and growth. I have a lot to offer. I’m good at my job. I just occasionally need a break! Is that a ridiculous pipe dream?

No, it is not a ridiculous pipe dream. In the vast, vast majority of jobs, including senior ones, it’s unreasonable to expect someone will be available while they’re on vacation.

It’s true that there can be some circumstances where you do need to be available. For example, if you wanted to take a week off during a key time for a project you were involved with, it might only be possible if you agree to be reachable should an emergency come up. Or if your department was understaffed and there literally wouldn’t be anyone else who could handle certain types of problems, in a sufficiently senior (and well-paid!) job you might agree to be reached in emergencies only — as long as there was a plan in place for this to be a short-term solution, not a permanent one.

But those are exceptions for specific, narrowly defined situations, not the rule. In general, people need to be able to take real, uninterrupted vacation time. That’s part of your compensation when you get PTO. Even aside from that, it’s in employers’ interest to ensure you can fully disconnect because that’s a key way of preventing burnout. Being able to disconnect fully makes it much more likely that you’ll come back refreshed and productive; not being able to will make your job far less sustainable in the long term.

So in most jobs, it’s understood that when you’re on vacation, you’re off of work, and the bar for contacting you should be very, very high (if it even exists at all). When an employer thinks it’s no big deal to bother you when you’re on vacation, it’s usually a sign of bigger dysfunction within the organization. In fact, in a decade and a half of answering letters about workplace issues, I don’t think I’ve ever heard about a workplace that didn’t respect people’s time off being an otherwise healthy and well-functioning environment.

One caveat to all this: In particularly senior and/or key jobs, you still might get contacted on occasion in emergencies, but (a) that should be reserved for true emergencies, not, “Oh, it would be more convenient if we could ask Jane rather than finding another solution,” and (b) even in a true emergency, people generally understand that they may or may not be able to reach you while you’re away. There’s no expectation that you’ll ensure you’re always reachable and available. And it’s not uncommon for people in those jobs to say, “I’ll be in the mountains with no cell service, so while you can try to reach me, I can’t guarantee you will,” or “I’ll be on my honeymoon, and we’re not answering calls at all, so before I leave let’s figure out what you should do if X or Y happens.”

With all that said, I wonder whether your boss meant her statement the way you heard it. “Since you’re a manager, I expect you to always be available on PTO anyway” doesn’t necessarily mean you should expect to hear from your office while you’re away. It might mean you’d only get a call in the case of an emergency, and that it might not happen at all, which is different than being expected to answer routine calls and emails.

It could be worth going back to your boss to try to clarify exactly what she expects. You could say something like, “You mentioned that you expect managers to always be available on PTO, and I wanted to clarify what you meant. Do you mean that in the case of an emergency, I might be contacted, or that you expect me to proactively remain in contact while I’m away, even for routine things?” And then, depending on her answer, you might also say, “Of course, if a real emergency comes up, I understand someone might try to reach me. I also want to make sure you know I’m not always reachable when I’m out; for example, I’ve traveled places with unreliable cell service and no Wi-Fi. But I also make sure my team knows what to do in case something comes up while I’m away.”

Alternately, depending on what you know of your boss and how she’s likely to respond to something like that, you might find it’s easier to just continue functioning as if of course your time off will be respected and wait to see if it ever actually becomes a problem; it may not. (Sometimes acting as if of course something reasonable will be respected makes it more likely that it actually is.) But as a preventive measure, you also might choose to proactively announce before your next vacation that you’re traveling somewhere without much cell coverage and, too bad, will be hard to reach.

Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email (and read our submission terms here.)

‘My Boss Says I Should Always Be Available on My Days Off’