Hands typing on a laptop with a butterfly on top

Setting boundaries at work: why it’s time to start putting your out of office response on 24/7

Posted by for Careers

Struggling to get your relationship with your emails under control? Check out this simple hack for setting boundaries.

Like a lot of people nowadays, my job requires me to spend quite a bit of time writing and responding to emails. And while sitting down at my desk filtering through my inbox isn’t exactly the most arduous task, it does have the potential to up my stress levels and leave me feeling pressured to respond at all hours of the day – especially if people are waiting on me to get back to them.

As such, I’m always on the hunt for a new technique to help me keep my emails (and related stress levels) under control. So, when I started to notice people using out-of-office responses to set boundaries – even when they’re not on annual leave – I was certainly intrigued. 

Instead of just using out-of-office responses as a way to notify their colleagues when they are and aren’t in the office, more and more people are using automatic replies as a way to notify senders when they can expect a response and what their preferred method of contact is. 

For example, you might use your message to inform people that you only check your emails at the start of the day, and that it usually takes you two or three days to reply. You might also choose to provide an alternative contact method – such as a work or mobile number – for any times when people need to contact you urgently.

While using an OOO response 24/7 may not be for everyone, according to Lauren Gordon, lead behavioural insights advisor at Bupa UK, it could be a great way to remove distractions, reduce presenteeism and help you feel more in control of your workflow.

“It’s hard to be productive at work without boundaries – they help manage the expectations that our colleagues have for us,” Gordon tells Stylist

“For example, if you’re working towards a tight deadline, it might be helpful to put an out-of-office on to explain that it might take longer for you to reply while you concentrate on the task.” 

Gordon continues: “Boundaries like these help us to stay in control of our work demands and reduce the risk of stress and burnout. Research shows that if we feel like we’re not in control of our workload, we’re more likely to find it difficult to switch off and let go of the working day.”

Without the distraction of constant email notifications, Gordon adds, you should be in a better position to reach a state of flow – the experience of being fully engaged by the task at hand.

“In a time of push notifications and instant messaging, it can be hard to concentrate on a single task at work,” Gordon points out. “These constant distractions could leave you feeling stressed, anxious and disrupt your productivity, whereas research shows that good time management at work positively impacts our wellbeing.”

A woman getting an email notification on her phone
Email notifications can disrupt 'flow' and make it harder to focus.

She continues: “It’s good practice to not read and respond to emails as soon as they pop into your inbox as they disrupt our flow. Even better, closing your emails and putting an out-of-office on allows us to take control of when we respond to communications.”

However, while it’s clear that using your OOO function to set boundaries is a great first step, it’s not some magic bullet that’s going to transform your relationship with your emails overnight. 

Putting technological barriers in place can help to deter you from checking or replying to emails – but at the end of the day, it’s a shift you’re going to have to make, too.

Indeed, as Michelle Elman, the author of the new book The Joy Of Being Selfish: Why You Need Boundaries And How To Set Them, explains: “The most important thing you can do for your mental health is not to focus on the technicalities of the OOO and instead whether you are actually abiding by it yourself.

“There is no point putting an OOO on and then continuing to spend your off-time on your emails. Similarly, if you put an OOO on and continue to reply, your boundaries are pointless as you are not enforcing them and therefore you teach others to override your OOO and that if they persist long enough, they will get a response.”

So, there you have it. While there’s no easy way to make dealing with your emails less stressful, using your OOO could be one way to regain control – as long as you make a commitment to stick to the boundaries you set. 

If adapting to the new world of work is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the struggle of transitioning to hybrid working and the stress of relying on technology to struggles with concentration, confidence and setting boundaries, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

Stylist’s Work It Out series aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health at work both now and in the future. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of work-related wellbeing.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Getty

Share this article

Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.