The Biggest Lie We Tell About Our Away Message

Ashley Cleland

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“I never felt more relaxed than when I was furloughed,” a friend shared with me. I was so surprised at first.

Tons of people are being furloughed (a temporary, unpaid leave of absence), including many of my friends and coworkers. I expected they’d feel grief, disillusionment, and anxiety. As an empowered career coach, I’ve talked to people all over the world in various stages of coping with career interruptions. They have all expressed these super understandable reactions to temporary job freezes, pay cuts, and layoffs.

All the more reason why I was surprised by my friend’s reaction. The world is basically a dumpster fire, there’s more economic anxiety than ever, and she found a furlough relaxing?

She explained that because she wasn’t being paid, she finally had unapologetic permission to set a hard boundary around her time.

She literally couldn’t work in her time away.

No pressure to check e-mails “just in case.”

No “I’ll just respond to this one real quick.”

No “I’m away from e-mail but you can call if you need me.”

She was actually, completely away from the office physically and mentally for the first time in years.

This time, her away message reflected that she would under no circumstances be working. This was incredibly freeing. When her job brought her back, she actually felt refreshed.

The biggest lie we tell in our away message is that we are actually away. It says a lot about our work culture, how much we value ourselves, and our identity (or lack thereof) outside of work that many of us feel we can never really be away.

A hard boundary in your away message is essential to an empowered life.

Let’s talk about why and how.

You deserve an actual break. If it’s tech-free, even better.

Many fields have a toxic work culture that expects employees to be either “on” or “a little on” all the time. As an educator, I resonate with this on a spiritual level. Educators are expected to work after hours. This isn't above and beyond, but an expectation that we'll work without pay. I also know that taking a step for your wellbeing is super hard when hustle and overwork culture is the norm.

I get it. But you are worth it.

And not only are you worth an actual, unplugged break, it is good for both you and your employer.

As endurance athlete Dean Karnazes says, “When you lift weights, you’re essentially tearing muscle fibers. But without a proper period of rest for your immune system to repair and grow the muscle, you’re not going to get the benefit of your training.” The dude ran 350 miles once, so he knows what he is talking about. High performers know that rest is essential.

Like any muscle, your brain needs rest to grow and get stronger. By not encouraging and embracing true time away, we are stunting our growth.

I’d encourage you to go one step further from not answering e-mails to a tech-free time away. Tech-free vacations have been found to increase mental clarity, improve concentration, increase creativity, and even improve quality of sleep. The benefit doesn’t stop with the employee. Organizations experience increased productivity when an employee returns.

If you’re a leader, it’s up to you to model this for your employees. They are watching not only whether you take breaks at all but how you take breaks. The wellbeing and productivity of your team depends upon what they learn from you. Make sure it’s a good example.

How to Add a Hard Boundary to your Away Message

I get a surprising amount of feedback when I go on vacation and post my away message. People have told me that they find it refreshing or they wish they could use it.

The thing is, they can use it. And so can you.

My hard boundary away message template is below:
Thank you for your e-mail. I am away from the office until [date]. In order to prioritize rest and spend time with my family, I will not be responding to e-mails or calls.
Thank you for understanding. If you need immediate assistance, you can contact [anyone else].

A hard boundary on your time away is your message to the universe that you really value your time and identity outside of work.

In my experience, people have a difficult time with this when they don’t have life worth protecting outside of work. If you’re struggling with boundaries around work, reflect on why. See what you can add to your life: a hobby, a dog, whatever is meaningful, and protect your time.

If you can, even a 15 minute drive, go physically away too. Be in nature. Take deep breaths. Sit with you. You’re great company, I promise.

However you go, you need away time to be truly away.

Wherever you are, be all there.

If that’s away, be away.

Rest is not an option. Rest is essential.

You deserve it.

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