I can tell we’ve entered August because my inbox is full of out-of-office auto-replies.
I can tell we’ve entered a new era of work culture by what these messages say.
In my law firm days, I was “out of the office with limited access to email,” and I’d promise to check in once a day and reply as promptly as I could.
In other words, I wasn’t really on vacation.
But in recent years I’ve noticed a new norm for these auto-responders: people were committing to respond when they got back. Imagine: time off-work that didn’t require working during time-off!
Recently, I’ve seen some millennials being even more affirmative: itemizing their vacation plans, expressing their restorative goals and motivations, and defending the importance of detaching from work.
Even though it goes against the way in which I was raised professionally I’ve come to appreciate this approach. Last month’s Harvard Business Review piece by Rebecca Zucker laid out the researched benefits of vacations. Not only do they result in improved physical and mental health; they also improve people’s work quality and engagement when they’re back in the office. So employers benefit too. Seeing as more than 50% of U.S. workers leave paid vacation time on the table, we certainly need the reminder.
Using an equity lens, though, reveals the justice issues that underlie the out-of-office message. As Tricia Hersey (founder of The Nap Ministry) says, “Rest Is resistance.” In her analysis, our hesitance to truly disengage from work is related to the systems of oppression that harm everyone, especially those already disadvantaged in our social hierarchies.
“Black people are dying from sleep deprivation,” Hersey writes, as capitalism and white supremacy continue to drive “the entire globe to exhaustion and a deep disconnection with our bodies and minds today. We are no longer divine human beings in this system and instead machines.”
I hope you honor your humanity this summer and get some rest. And when you receive an auto-reply from a colleague—or when you are drafting your own—remember the significance of this choice.
Also remember that it’s not a choice everyone gets. Too many workers don’t get paid time off at all. Those who are paid hourly lose income when they take breaks, and millions depend on every hour to pay for food and housing for themselves and their families.
If you’re a manager or business owner, in a position to give people time off, do it right. Encourage your employee to step away, particularly if they are hesitant, and honor their time off when they do. Look at your policies and work to make sure everyone in your organization has some way to disconnect. And model the practice of rest yourself.
As for me, I have revised my auto-reply message. I tell folks I’ll get back to them when I return. I admit I still do sneak a look at my inbox while I’m away (and I reply to messages that are urgent), but I’m working on it. In this one part of life, at least, I am striving to be less productive.