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‘My Boss Expects People to Work While They’re on Vacation’

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Dear Boss,

What’s the best way to manage work-related requests when you’re taking time off, especially when holding onto your job seems more critical than ever? I have worked for the same organization for several years. In the past couple of years, my boss has developed a habit of asking her direct reports to follow up on work-related tasks when they are on leave.

I am becoming increasingly frustrated that it’s now the default for our team to contact staff members when they are on vacation, sick, or out on some other type of leave. For example, one of my co-workers was recently out on maternity leave and our office contacted her multiple times during her leave about tasks that the staff covering her work should have covered. Another time, a co-worker who was out sick with the flu was asked to answer a series of questions about some of her work, even though they easily could have been handled by someone who was actually in the office. In general, the pattern is that the requests are mostly time-sensitive but nearly always could be managed by another staff member in the person’s absence. If I have dropped the ball on a specific task (which does happen occasionally), then I don’t mind following up on these requests. But I mind it the rest of the time!

I am sure that reaching out to people on leave has become a default because most of us feel compelled to respond when it happens. I know I do! So what are some good strategies to avoid the compulsion to respond? And then how do you manage the fallout from not responding to what your boss feels is urgent (even if you don’t), especially in an economic environment where there’s extra pressure to do everything you can to hold onto your job?

You’re right that it’s not okay to continually bother colleagues who are out sick, on vacation, or on maternity leave, especially when there are others who can cover their work in their absence. Doing so pretty much ensures that people will never get to fully disconnect from work, which over time will lead to resentment and burnout. If they’re taking leave through the Family Medical Leave Act — FMLA, which people on maternity leave often are using — it can also be illegal, depending on how significant the requests are. “Where is the ___ file?” is usually fine. “Can you finish up this report?” is not.

In most cases, being on leave should mean that you can fully check out of work. There are some exceptions to this, like if you negotiate a vacation at a busy time of year and in exchange agree to be available for emergencies, or if you have a (rare) job where you know from the start that always being accessible is part of the deal. But for most people and in most cases, you should be able to take a sick day or a vacation without being peppered with demands from your office while you’re gone.

There are a few ways to handle an office that won’t respect your time off. The easiest is simply to be unavailable on the days you’re out. Don’t answer your phone, don’t return emails, and wait to respond until you’re back at work … at which point you can say, “I just saw this since I was on vacation/out sick until today.” This is actually quite normal! Many, if not most, people handle their time off this way. But since it sounds like your office has grown used to being able to reach you while you’re out, it’ll likely go more smoothly if you start warning colleagues ahead of time that you will not respond while you’re out. That means that before leaving for vacation you’d say something like, “I’m going to be pretty inaccessible while I’m out and won’t be checking texts or email.” And if it’s an unplanned absence like a sick day, you’d let people know at the same time that you call out sick — saying something like, “I’m going to have my phone off today while I rest.” Reinforce it in people’s minds by setting up an auto-response on your email (like “I’m out until December 5 and won’t see any messages until I return”).

You noted that you’re worried about repercussions from your boss if you do that, and I’d like to know more about what that worry is based on. Has your boss said or done things that make you think she would react badly to you fully disconnecting on your days off? Or does it stem more from an assumption that if she’s contacting you, she must expect an immediate response and it would be a problem not to provide one? If it’s the latter, it could be worth rethinking it. A lot of managers ask for things whenever the thought occurs to them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll hold it against you for being away from work (and thus unresponsive) when they ask. It’s also possible that because you and your co-workers haven’t been pushing back on these requests, your manager thinks everyone is fine with it but would be more considerate if she realized people objected. (Yes, she should be able to figure that out on her own, but sometimes people don’t.) In other words, unless you’ve seen evidence to the contrary, it’s perfectly plausible that if you set boundaries, your manager will make do.

But if your boss has reacted badly in the past when people don’t respond to messages on their days off, then you have a bigger problem. In that case, you probably need to have a more direct conversation with her about it. That means saying something like, “Recently, when I’ve been out sick or on vacation, I’ve been contacted with work questions, often multiple times per absence. It makes it hard to disconnect and really make full use of my time off. I understand in cases of rare emergencies, of course, but it’s been happening for more routine things that someone else could have handled. Could I ask that we try to make contacting people who are out the absolute last resort if there’s no other option, rather than doing it more as our default?”

Also, where are your co-workers in all of this? I’m betting that they’re as annoyed as you are — and possibly feeling similarly hesitant to push back against it. There can be real power in numbers, so if you can get them on board with a strategy (perhaps you can all plan to be unreachable when they’re out and/or collectively ask your boss to respect your time off), the message will carry more weight. (That doesn’t have to mean organizing a group meeting with your boss; simply encouraging everyone to decline to be reachable when they take time off could do it.) It’s going to be a lot easier to change this element of your team’s culture if everyone is on board with erecting — and maintaining — boundaries.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Boss Expects People to Work While They’re on Vacation’