Because simply putting off replying is easier said than done.
We’ve talked about the “mother/manager syndrome” before—the managerial style women will sometimes use, typically toward male colleagues and subordinates, in which they adopt a motherly manner of relating to employees and in which they assume “office housework.” That housework means person-oriented tasks, usually unrelated to one’s actual job description, that add up over time and consume the bulk of a woman's day.
Think: the woman in the office who buys coffee for everyone, who helps plan happy hours just to get everyone together and who handles her colleagues’ schedules when they’re too wrapped up in other work—despite having her own work actually delineated in her contract.
So what happens when that woman takes off on vacation? While she’s allowed to utilize her paid time off and be completely off, we all have a hard time actually unplugging. This is largely because we’re a culture of self-prescribed “work martyrs,” encumbered by the idea that no one could do our jobs while we’re away. For the “office mom,” the anxiety of taking time off is only exacerbated by the fact that colleagues depend on her to handle every little task.
We know that women can be wrongly penalized for putting these off, and we know that it’s often easier said than done to turn down someone’s ask for help. So how should women handle those office housework emails and calls for help while they’re supposed to be on vacation? We asked some experts, and here’s what they had to say ...
1. Simply stop replying.
"I think a lot of us fall into the trap of checking our work emails when we're on vacation because that's just what we do,” says Meghann Isgan, Team Success Manager for Readers.com. “If there's no clear directive from your boss that you should be responding to emails while you're sitting on the beach, allow yourself to truly have a break. The non-urgent things will either be taken care of by someone else, or will be waiting for you when you get back. Constantly being available sets the tone both for yourself and for the people you work with that you will always make time for those things.
"I promise, if something is falling apart and you're urgently needed, your company will find a way to reach you! In the meantime, enjoy the time away and stop replying to the emails."
2. Call in helpers before you go.
“Resisting the urge or the feeling of necessity to do office ‘housework’ on vacation is difficult—I find that through careful planning, mindfulness and setting boundaries, women can focus on their self-care,” says Coreyne Woodman-Holoubek, head of HR Services and co-owner of Contracted Leadership.
“First, plan who will respond and ‘to what’ work queries will they respond to in your absence. This may mean asking multiple people to assist you. Offer to do the same when they go on vacation or need backup when they are trying to make a deadline. In this way, you are creating a mutually beneficial agreement. Communicate your ‘backup’ plan to your customers, peers, colleagues and boss ahead of time in person and via email. Put this information on your inner office and out-of-office email response.”
3. Set strong boundaries of when you’ll actually be available.
“I strongly encourage my clients to take a vacation where they can really unplug and fill up their energy barrels,” says Elene Cafasso, founder and head coach of Enerpace Executive Coaching. "I know that it’s unrealistic for some jobs to assume they will be completely out of contact. So then the goal becomes maximizing vacation time and minimizing work time. The women leaders who do this best are those that enforce very strong boundaries around when they will and will not be available.
"Men are usually more able to ignore the stuff in their inbox and projects on their plate that don’t fit into their top priorities. Women try to do it all—even while on vacation, even if it's not part of their job description. At the end of the day, it's my responsibility to care for myself, my family and my career.”
4. Understand your company’s culture and address emails accordingly.
“Unequal expectations and treatment of men and women in the workplace is a diversity issue that needs to be continually addressed,” says Stan Kimer, President of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer. “In terms of women often being called for minor questions or items while on vacation, I would first recommend that women study their corporate culture—is it one where they routinely expect everyone to be on call 24/7 even while on vacation, or is the culture one where leaders understand that time away from the office is needed to recharge oneself so they can come back even more productive?
"If it is a corporate culture that values time away, I would recommend that women stage the discussion in such a way where it shows value to the company, saying something like, ‘I truly would appreciate it if you only contact me while I am on vacation with extremely urgent items. This time away is important for both me and the company—it is important for me to refresh myself so I can return to the office even more enthused and productive. I do hope you can understand that.’”
5. Be aware that these calls can usually wait.
“I am the owner and creative director of CreativeDevelopmentAgency.com, a full-service PR firm in New York City, and I always get stuck with calls/emails while on vacation,” says Kristin Marquet. “However, I've gotten better over the years because I've learned that rarely anything is an emergency and that my assistant can handle it in most cases.”
6. Just say no.
“If you do take on ‘office housework’, you need to do what you can to make sure it isn’t taking over your actual paid work and that you are not being taken advantage of,” says Laura Hall, marketing executive at Shiply. “If you’re going on vacation, you need to make it clear that your work phone will be off and you will not be looking at emails while you’re gone.
"If you worry that the work still needs to be taken care of, arrange for someone to handle these tasks while you are away—make sure there is a handover period so everyone knows what needs to be done in good time, and what tasks are priorities and what can wait. You will be respected for thinking ahead and, if you are penalized, then this is not a healthy work environment. You should not have to work on vacation, so don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.”
7. Let your colleagues know that you won’t be responsive.
“It is not unprofessional or uncooperative for an employee to ask that their colleagues respect their time off work,” says Steve Pritchard, HR consultant for giffgaff. “Set up an out-of-office automatic response to emails, letting people know when you will be back in the office to read the message. It is a good idea to refer them to a colleague who is capable of dealing with the inquiry in your absence.
"Before going on vacation, you could inform your colleagues that you will not be checking your emails and request that they only call you in case of an emergency that cannot wait until you return. This shows that you are not being difficult or indifferent to the company’s needs but, at the same time, you want to be able to enjoy your time off without worrying that you will be receiving calls and emails every 10 minutes.”
8. Understand the true meaning of self-advocacy.
“It is the capacity to speak on one’s behalf in an enlightened self-interested way and not the selfish way,” says Sucheta Kamath, founder and CEO of Cerebral Matters. “Women tend to overcorrect themselves by taking on too much in an effort to appear cooperative and avoid the perception of being irresponsible or an anti-team player. Women might want to consider asking what is it that others need from them rather than volunteering themselves, curbing the impulse to take on responsibilities by saying, ‘Let me check with my calendar and see how far I am with my current project,’ and making a schedule for ‘chore duties’ for the office just as you would do for the home.”
9. Remember your need to recharge.
“Women more times than not (and I’m including myself in this group) tend to feel obligated to work while out on vacation,” says Laurie Brednich of HR Company Store, LLC. “Sometimes it’s company culture (work martyrs), sometimes it’s their own internal mechanisms that make them feel they must work while on vacation, and sometimes they are just bored on vacation and have nothing better to do.
"The reality is, it’s not necessary at all. Unless you are in a position where you are literally the only one who can perform such a task, then it can wait or your office will figure it out ... Recharging, relaxing and resting are the reasons employers offer vacation. Real leaders understand that for employees to perform at their peak, they need time each year to reset their hearts and minds and refocus.
10. Know your worth and don’t sell yourself short.
“If you don’t set limits, people will continue to overstep and leave you doing the ‘office housework,’” says Tashieka Brewer, publicist at Melange PR. “Communicate how you will be handling work emails and calls prior to your vacation and stick to it. If you are only checking email one time a day, only check one time a day. If you are only communicating via email while on vacation and not taking calls, don’t move away from the vacation guidelines that you set prior to the vacation.
"Delegate emails to an assistant or colleague you trust to filter through to see what is a priority or time-sensitive while you are away and what can wait to be addressed when you get back. Keep email responses short and to the point by avoiding posing questions that do not have next steps.”
11. Identify the issues you should normally handle.
“Women often get called when they haven't established ground rules and backup systems before they leave the office,” says Robin Kowalchuk Burk, MBA, Ph.D., managing director of Analytic Decisions2, LLC. “1. Identify which issues should be forwarded to you. Unless you are a junior staff member, there will be some. Clarify the issues or condition and document this for your staff, with a copy to your own boss. 2. Identify other issues you normally handle. Assign an alternate to handle these and designate those that can wait until you return. Again, make sure your staff all get the memo, along with your boss. If your group regularly interacts with others inside the company, let key people know whom to contact in your absence. 3. Realize that you are doing your team a favor by taking time to relax, refresh and re-energize. Make it clear you expect others to do so as well—after coordinating their own backups with you.”
12. If all else fails, blame it on your service.
“Employers are just beginning to realize the folly of interrupting much needed away time, but women often feel guilty if they don't stay plugged in,” says Lynda Spiegal, HR professional and founder of Rising Star Resumes. “If you have a boss who views your vacation as time away from the office, but not from work, try a preemptive strike. Before you leave, announce that your destination has really poor cell service and no Wi-Fi. That worked for me multiple times.”
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.