how can I get away from work on the weekends and in the evenings?

A reader writes:

I’m in the middle of the hierarchy at a very small company. Two people report to me, and I report to two people, but they trust me and I have a lot of autonomy and decision-making power. My two reports and I work a pretty standard schedule, with a few weekends and trips thrown in, but my two bosses have a more flexible schedule.

And therein lies the problem — because they’re so flexible, we end up working all the time. They don’t see that much of a difference between Saturday and Monday, but I do! So I’m writing this on Saturday at 2:30 pm, my first day off since 4th of July weekend, and I’ve gotten about half the level of emails and requests that I would get on a weekday already. I answer the ones I can, ignore the more involved ones, and try to protect my two reports from having to do anything, but I’m getting really stressed and I feel like I’m never “off.” This happens on weekday nights, too, usually all night.

Is there anything I can do to encourage less of this? Subtle behavior modification? I don’t want to be paid for my time (we’re all exempt, anyway) — I just want to feel like I have some time to myself!

P.S. I know some commenters will say to just turn my phone off, but I’ve been participating in this for so long and it’s so ingrained that I don’t think anyone would take the hint. And I would be antsy anyway!

I wrote back and asked: “Are you sure that they expect you to respond over the weekend? And if you are sure, what makes you sure? What would happen if you waited until Monday?”

The letter-writer’s response:

Well, with some of them it’s pretty clear that they don’t expect a response until Monday, so I ignore those. Others are time sensitive or involve clients, and I think I’ve conditioned them that they can expect me to answer those if possible.

The gray area is when there are long email chains where technically I don’t have to respond, but I would be out of the loop or miss out on some opportunities, or not be able to suggest things that might work better if I didn’t participate.

Maybe I should just ignore them all for a weekend and see what happens though! The pressure might be coming from myself rather than outside?

Yep, that’s the first thing I’m going to suggest.

Many, many times people become resentful of expectations that they assume others have of them, when in fact the expectations are all internal.

There’s a difference between your managers working on the weekend or at night and their expecting others to do the same. Some people like working in the evenings or on the weekend, especially when they have a flexible schedule (which your bosses do) — but plenty of times they’re well aware that not everyone works like that and they don’t expect others to mirror their schedules. That might not be the case here, of course; maybe your managers do expect instant answers at odd hours — but you shouldn’t be assuming that just because of the timestamps on their emails.

And if you haven’t actually talked about this explicitly with them, then it’s entirely possible that you’re misreading their intentions.

So, I would do the following:

1. Stop checking your email and responding to email and phone calls over the weekend. Try this for one weekend and see what happens. If everything seems to go fine, try it for a second weekend and see what happens. Still fine? That might be your answer.

2. If you’re concerned about stopping cold turkey without warning anyone, then you can check one time per day. At that point, you can answer anything truly urgent. If something isn’t truly urgent but you think the sender will be concerned if they don’t get an answer from you until Monday because of the pattern you’ve established, then send back a quick note saying, “Wanted to let you know I saw this and will get back to you on Monday.” But your goal is to wean them off even those responses over time.

(You could even set up an out-of-office auto-reply for the weekends if you want to make sure people know not to expect a response right away.)

3. If this will truly be a massive change and you’re concerned about how it will go over, then talk to your managers about it. Tell them that you’re going to be less available on weekends and evenings — or that you’re going to make an effort to spend your evenings and weekends recharging away from work and the computer — and that you want to mention it since you know you have a history of responding quickly during those times. Ask them if that raises any concerns for them.

You might hear that it’s fine. Or you might hear that they’d rather you be at least a little bit accessible — like, say, checking your email once or twice per weekend but only responding for certain types of things. (And that’s not unreasonable in some types of jobs — but it’s a lot better than what you’re doing now.) Or, yes, you might hear that they think your plan is insane and how could you possibly think that weekends are for time off? If that’s the case, then you’ll have a clear answer to the “is this pressure coming from myself or from my managers” question, and at that point you can decide if that’s a job you want.

But the place to start is by not assuming that the presence of an email means a response is instantly required. That alone might hugely raise your quality of life.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. Craig*

    For non-execs, weekends and nights are for personal time.

    Work/life balance should not have to be a choice.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But isn’t the point here that she doesn’t even know if she’s being asked to make that choice, but is just making it on her own (so far)?

    2. Victoria Nonprofit*

      I agree, but like so many issues that come up here, the issues isn’t what *should* be true but rather what is true, what the writer can do about it, and what decisions she needs to make.

      So, yeah, it sucks if your managers expect you to work nights and weekends, even if it’s an industry norm. That’s not a healthy way to live (my opinion, obviously – not the Inherent Truth of Work). But if that’s your situation, you can take steps to try to change it and if that fails, you have to decide whether you want to continue working there.

      … and we don’t talk about this much here, because this is a management blog and not a political blog, but of course there are actions you can take to try to change the industry/economy/society that your problem exists within.

  2. Joey*

    Just a word of caution. In my experiences generally the higher you go the more youre expected to live to work. In other words some bosses might unfairly interpret not wanting to work all the time as a sign that you’re not interested in progressing higher up the food chain. Some bosses are more realistic about shutting it down on evenings and weekends, but those seem to be fewer and farther between as you move up the ladder.

    1. The IT Manager*

      True, but here’s what I noticed. The LW works a standard schedule plus night and weekends. The bosses work a flexible schedule including nights and weekends. I can’t tell if that means the bosses actually do work all the time (which is a possiblity) or if they take time off during the week when the LW works.

      Either way the LW is obviously burning out and needs some kind of break before she just up and quits.

  3. Kate*

    I’ve always made it clear that I don’t check email on the weekend unless something is scheduled or anticipated, however I do always have my cel with me and I’m quite okay with someone calling me or sending me a text asking me to look into something.

    Do you know how often that happens? Almost never. Email is passive and people shoot them off without necessarily expecting a response. But when you text or call someone you are quite conscious that you’re intruding on them and so people are far less likely to do it mindlessly.

    I’ve had this stance for years and it has not impeded my career advancement at all.

    1. tcookson*

      That is exactly what I do. Because my boss has his private practice as well as heading the department where I’m his assistant, he does work at all hours of the day and night. He will send me emails at any and all hours throughout the week and the weekend, but I don’t respond to them until I’m at work the next business day. If he really wants something immediately, he will call or text me; since he only does that occasionally, I’ve determined that his after-hours emailing is something that he just does because the time is opportune for him, not because he expects me to do anything immediate about it.

  4. clobbered*

    I don’t know whether this is plausible for the OP’s specific situation, but I have a well defined set of instructions for getting a response out of me when I am not physically in the office. Saying URGENT in the subject line of the email guarantees I reply next time I check email, which might be only once or twice on a weekend; if you really need a response stat, you have to ring me. In the case of a senior person who only emails me when indeed something needs my attention, I use the VIP feature of my phone to alert me to his emails and no others.

    The way I try to think of it is that I should not be penalized for being a couch potato that likes to spend an afternoon off curled up in the house with my tablet. What if I was one of them Red Bull fueled adrenalin junkies and spent my afternoons hurling myself off mountaintops? So I try to come up with access policies that would work even if I was a snowboarder. Which, to be clear, I am so not.

  5. Brittany*

    I think people can be their own worst enemy in this situation. Once you set the expectation that you’re available, of course people are going to assume that you’ll respond and then you’re stuck in a circle you can’t break free from.

    When I worked for a hospital, I was responsible for a good amount of clinical trials that the head of the dept was the PI on. I was so rattled all the time that his emails were king since his own schedule was so crazy. I would get emails from him anywhere until 2-3am and I would be answering them. I finally sat down and said to myself, is this making a difference? I don’t choose his schedule so why am I revolving my life around it? I started shutting my phones off on the weekend because there was no emergency that was going to involve me that I needed to respond to on a weekend.

    I take this approach in all of my jobs now. I don’t care how it’s perceived by others if I leave right at 5pm (with exception of course, meetings run late, things come up, etc). I’m not willing to sacrifice what little personal time I have each week to more work. They already have me for 40 hours. Protect your personal time.

    From the OP’s email, I get the impression that the pressure is coming from within. I like Alison’s advice to try it for a weekend and see what happens, but the ultimate test is the OP leaving it alone.

    OP, some recommendations:

    Do things that are NOT cell phone friendly. Go to the movies, go out to dinner with friends, or better yet, if your work email isn’t linked to your personal phone, just leave it at home. The more you can detach yourself, the more you can relax.

    Spend time with people who are aware of the situation. Tell them when you’re feeling anxious about work and then do something fun that will distract you.

    Make a resolution to not even glance at your email inbox in any way until Monday morning. That way you’ll have a full expectation of what a typical “unplugged” weekend is like and move forward from there.

    It sucks but once you re-claim the time you’re dedicating to work? You’ll be a lot more happy and relaxed.

    1. COT*

      Good advice. I, too, find it easiest to stay away from my phone when I’m doing activities that are not phone-friendly (like something outdoorsy or something highly social) or just so fun that I get absorbed in them. If possible, try leaving the house and leaving your phone behind–even if it’s just for a walk around the block. You can’t check it when it’s not with you!

    2. Jamie*

      This is fine if you’re making a clear choice that protecting your personal time is worth the risk (if any). And it may very well be, in which case it’s the right choice.

      But in an environment where after hours availability is rewarded this can hurt your chances at moving up. Not at all companies, and you can argue whether it’s fair or not, but it’s reality a lot of places that the person who is always gone at 5:00 on the dot and is unreachable after hours or on weekend won’t be considered for the same promotions as someone who at least appears to have made work a more integral part of their life – even off the clock.

      It’s the right choice for many people, but it’s not without consequence at some places.

      1. The IT Manager*

        True. And at those places or for those jobs that do invade your “personal time” ideally you are compensated for the fact with possibly more money and perks which could include greater flexibility during the normal work hours.

        1. Brittany*

          I look at it as if a job requires me to be attached 24/7 where my vacations and free time are consumed by the constant checking in, that’s a job I don’t want. It’s one of the reasons I could never ever be a doctor.

          1. Jamie*

            Right – that’s why it’s a good plan for someone consciously making that choice.

            But not everyone understands that if they make that choice the consequence can be less money and less opportunities down the road. People have different priorities and that’s great – but if you’re priority is climbing the ladder and making a lot more money than otherwise then sometimes the sacrificing of personal time isn’t optional…it’s required.

            1. Brittany*

              While I agree with what you’re saying and I do believe it’s unfair, I also feel like it’s completely self imposed by companies to have that expectation. There was a time when not everyone had a phone and computer in their pocket and businesses still survived while people went on uninterrupted vacations. Eventually, there is going to be no such thing as personal time because the expectation will be that you’re working ALL the time. If a job description says “Full Time – 40 hours per week”, I don’t think there should be a fine print expectation that you won’t advance unless you exceed that, but it’s sadly the world we live in.

          2. Ruffingit*

            Totally agreed. I’m not interested in being consumed by my work. Some people are OK with that. I’m not.

          3. webxi*

            even if you are a doctor it really depends whether you are the doctor on call in which case if you are then its part of the job hours.

            I am an ict support person and if a business system is down on a sunday i just have to run on site otherwise everything will be stalled with angry customers.

            On the other hand everything that can wait will just have to be made to wait.
            I have regulary gone to a customer site with my small very small child because there was no way a customer could be made to wait and i had nowhere to leave the child…. but you see never for free.
            always charged for the hours.

            So look at these scenarios with an open mind.

        2. Jamie*

          Absolutely – if you have a job with blurry lines and time creep by all means make sure they understand flexibility when needed and that sacrificing that time comes at a cost…in a higher salary.

          The caveat is dues paying, though. I put in the time and the money and flexibility followed. Quickly, but there was some dues paying up front which I assumed would be rewarded later…and it was. Had I tried to negotiate that right out of the gate when I was unknown and unproven I’d have shot myself in the foot.

        3. Jessa*

          And at those places you are usually sure that you DO need to be available and often you can trade off available with other people, or as IT Manager said, you can take OTHER time to yourself. The fact is right now the OP is not sure that this time is really actually needed, but rather just expected. The expectations need to be discussed and solutions worked out. Maybe others can trade off.

      2. FD*

        Exactly! In my job, managers are more and more expected to be constantly on call the higher up you go, and being available to be called in at odd times is rewarded with extra hours and overtime, and better chances of advancement. But I knew that going in.

        1. Wowzer*

          A lot of times that does happen as you advance through a company. You have to look forward to the times that you have scheduled off. That when you can hopefully disconnect!

      3. FYI*

        Law jobs are like this. You are expected to respond to all emails within 24 hours, and most within 1-2 hours (and some within minutes). You are expected to drop/cancel plans (even pretty important ones) with no notice. (And as IT Manager notes below, they’re compensated for the demanding nature of the job.)

        Pro-tip: If the job comes with an employer-paid iPhone or Blackberry and doesn’t pay enough for you to be OK with sacrificing your “me” time, then it may not be a job you want.

  6. Threeohfive*

    Does your work e-mail go to your personal phone? If so, is the only reason for this so that you are “on” during evening and weekend hours? I would stop this ASAP to force you to check work e-mail on your laptop or computer. It will minimize the obsessive e-mail checking. :)

    If you have a work phone, then just leave it at home as someone else suggested. Nothing nothing nothing is worth your personal time, physical or mental health. I am super responsible and a tad OCD so I get it, I really do. But I decided a few years ago to stop being a slave to my job when there was no need. I am much happier for it.

  7. Ruffingit*

    This situation reminds me somewhat of my mother who could not let the phone ring at home. She had to answer it. It was nearly pathological. And this was an issue because she got tons of phone calls. My mother is very social, has a lot of friends, etc. One Christmas, my aunt and uncle were visiting from out of state and I was home from college.

    We wanted to have family time with my mother and, after she had received five calls and talked for a minimum of 15 minutes for each one, we insisted she turn the ringer off and let us have some time with her. We all told her that if she answered the phone again, we would leave because it was clear she was more interested in talking on the phone than in being with us.

    She agreed, but I’ve never seen such an antsy person in my life. Even with the ringer off, the phone would vibrate somewhat (this was a landline, before cell phones) and she would glance at it almost with longing like she had to answer it.

    My point being – stop this behavior because it’s destructive not only to you, but to those around you. Stop answering the e-mails. So what if you miss an opportunity to give your input on something? Is that the end of the world? So what if your input could make some issue somewhat better? Is it the end of the world if some project goes ahead without your thoughts/input attached to it? Maybe it could be a better project if your input was given, but it’s fine if it’s not.

    Start protecting your quality weekend time. You will feel a lot better. And realize, it’s OK if things don’t have your input and your thoughts attached. The world will not stop spinning. Get OK with letting go or you’ll be let go by your family, your friends, and others around you who can’t get any of your time because it’s all being given to work.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      LOL your poor mom, sitting there like a startled antelope every time the phone vibrates…the picture in my head is priceless.

      I used to be like this, partly because of answering the phone at work all the time–I felt like I HAD to answer it at home. It has finally stopped now that (1) no one calls me much anymore; my friends and I mostly talk online, and (2) I started using my cell phone for important things. When the landline rings, it’s usually either a wrong number, a robocall, or the machine can get it.

      1. Ruffingit*

        LOL Elizabeth at your description of a startled antelope because that is exactly what it was like. I can have a sense of humor about it somewhat now, but at the time it sure did hurt my feelings and those of my aunt and uncle. We had all traveled several hours to be with her and we were being shoved aside so she could answer calls from people who lived in the same town as her and whom she saw all the time.

        That is when we ganged up on her and said “it’s us or them because we all have other places we can go where the people there actually want to see us and spend time with us.” She got the message, but it still left some lingering resentment for all of us.

        This is possibly why I don’t feel the need to answer my phone all the time and I frequently leave it off. I have only a cell, no land line, and there are times when the cell is off completely and more often than not, it’s on silent. I refuse to sacrifice my time with the people right in front of me for whoever is on the phone.

  8. Nikki J.*

    I feel like “communication” could be the answer to most questions posted here…or a lot of life issues for that matter.

    Stop assuming, ask questions, set boundaries and get out of the “what if” mentality. Bet yourself and others will be happier.

  9. MarieK*

    “The gray area is when there are long email chains where technically I don’t have to respond, but I would be out of the loop or miss out on some opportunities, or not be able to suggest things that might work better if I didn’t participate.” – This is such a frustrating thing, especially since there’s a precedent of already responding during off-hours. How much decision-making gets done over the course of these email chains that couldn’t be addressed while you’re at the office?

    Also, regarding your direct reports, do they feel the pressure to respond? You mention trying to protect them; if you don’t respond, will they feel obligated to do so? It’s worth having a conversation with them about your expectations once you establish boundaries with regard to your own participation on nights and weekends.

    1. Ruffingit*

      And it could be that with two direct reports, the three of you can trade off on the weekend work if you feel it must absolutely be done. Each person takes one weekend a month, and you trade off on the last weekend each month so everyone gets some free time.

      I suspect though that this is less a problem of scheduling and more a problem of the OP needing to set some boundaries for herself with work time/personal time.

  10. Anon*

    Oh mercy this was me about 4 years ago. Had just started a new job with a new boss and was operating under the impression that I HAD to respond. It was already a very rocky start for someone who wasn’t new to the work world. Finally, my husband had enough of the anxiety it caused me and just made me put my phone away at dinner or late at night. Now, all my staff know that they can always reach me on a cell phone but after 8pm M-Th, I’m not checking my blackberry for email. (I manage remote campus sites and they all shut down at 8.) Anything else will wait till morning. And with new bosses I’ve gotten since boss #1 (fairly heavy turnover here), I’ve made it clear that weekends, vacations, evenings are mine. Nothing we do is life or death unless the building is on fire. So while my bosses might email me at 3am, I have never and will never respond to them. They are cool with that.

    It might take a pretty frank conversation about it to really make you feel okay about it though.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Glad your husband and you were able to set some workable boundaries around this. Otherwise, it could be totally exhausting. Many people don’t think about the fact that these issues not only affect them, but those around them as well. It obviously affects your spouse, but others too – if you are never or rarely available, your friends will stop inviting you to things and drift away because they get tired of being second to your work schedule.

      1. Anon*

        And it had started to impact my health as well. Ended up in the hospital with a meningitis like virus after collapsing in the shower due to the anxiety from the job. If I wasn’t going to take proper care of myself, he was.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Wow, I’m sorry it got that bad for you, but happy to hear you’ve recovered in more ways than one!

  11. AP (OP)*

    Hi everyone, thanks for all your feedback.

    I think my plan will be to change the settings on my phone to only receive mail every few hours on the weekends, so I can respond only to urgent things, and then see what happens. (Hopefully I can increase the time gradually until I get to where I’m only checking once a day!)

    I do think I have one of those jobs where not being available 24/7 can count against you in some respect – but it’s all in the balance and in understanding how much I’m willing to trade in order to move up. As IT Manager pointed out above, I am definitely on the “burn out” side of the equation right now so something needs to change!

    Also, as Jamie says above, there is some aspect of dues paying, but I hope that by now I’m at a level where I can start to control my time better than I have been in the past.

    Thanks again to everyone for assuring me that I’m not crazy and that I can do something about this!

    1. Jamie*

      I’ve definitely been where you are and I had to train people on the concept of emergency. Scaling back is hard, but it can absolutely be done. The key and by far the most important thing is making sure they know they can get you in a real emergency.

      My place knows if I’m not answering email and it’s an emergency to call. A lot of things sound urgent by email but not so much when they have to pick up the phone.

      One way to accomplish this while you wean them off expecting your 24/7 availability is responding to emails by saying you’ll look into it on Monday. That lets them know you received the message, but will handle it when you are in the office.

      As long as you are there and ready to jump into work mode for true emergencies (for me it’s IT, for others it could be anything…a sale about to go bad, customer issue, whatever) then it’s okay to deal with work at work. It’s making sure they know, without a shadow of a doubt, you’re available for emergencies that will lessen the fear of you being out of reach.

      Then again I remoted into a machine yesterday while I was sick and under sedation because….I don’t know. I was halfway through the fix when I remembered no one was supposed to be asking me for stuff Monday afternoons.

      It’s a hard habit to break.

      1. AP (OP)*

        Thanks! I do think that if you can get the balance 90% right, the other 10% won’t sting quite as badly…so when you do find yourself remoting in on your Monday afternoon “off” you can just be a little annoyed and then laugh at yourself, rather than getting resentful about it.

  12. SB*

    I never understood the urge to be married to your work. I get home and I want to unplug. My weekends are for doing my own thing. I don’t mind staying late to finish a project or coming in early to get things done, or even the occasional working weekend. However, one of the questions I always ask in interviews is regarding work-life balance. I don’t think I would want to work for a person or company who measured my worth to the company based on hours clocked rather than quality of work, even if it means I might never be CEO. (Because I never want to be CEO)

    1. AmyNYC*

      “Work to live, not live to work”
      I work hard 9 to 6 (often 6:30) and understand that there will be occasional late nights but outside of that, I leave work at work and that’s that. I don’t think I’m lazy or a bad employee, but I want time to myself, my family and my friends.

      1. SB*

        Exactly. It’s not about being lazy or doing the least amount to scrape by. It’s about being efficient. I do my best to not let my private life impinge on work time, and expect the same respect of work on my private life.
        I have a (seriously bad) workaholic boss. I was very clear when I started about my understanding of work life balance. I have a work phone and a personal phone. I made it very clear that, during my personal time, I will not carry my work phone around with me. I gave my boss my personal cell number and told him if there was something truly urgent he could call me. (My personal cell doesn’t get signal at work, so it’s a fair tradeoff) He balked a bit at first, but then I reminded him that I am non-exempt and that if he expected me to constantly check and respond to e-mails that all those little bits and pieces of time were billable and would make for nasty amounts of paperwork. I also make a point of vacationing where I either can’t take my computer (doesn’t fit in my carry on) or cell service is spotty (huzzah mountains!).

      2. Elizabeth West*

        I do too, and it was originally a response to work-related stress in the office. I had to leave it behind because it was making me sick. So I barely even TALK about work now outside the office, even with a job I like and one where I’m not embarrassed to say where I work.

  13. Liz T*

    I love the idea of checking only at certain times. I tend to communicate at all hours, and often have to deal with scheduling disasters outside my control; once, when I knew my team was not as email-obsessed as I, I just asked that they be sure to check their email once before they went to bed and once when they woke in the morning. If I send an email at 2 a.m., it doesn’t need to be answered at 2:05 a.m.

    The OP could also set certain email addresses to go straight to a special folder, rather than the inbox. That would help with the checking at certain times (without sacrificing emails from, say, mom).

  14. Kit M.*

    Many, many times people become resentful of expectations that they assume others have of them, when in fact the expectations are all internal.

    Words to live by. I’ll add it to my list, along with “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity” and “Never attribute to rudeness that which can be adequately explained by shyness”.

  15. Cassie*

    My boss sometimes sends emails at night (especially if he’s traveling abroad), over the weekend, etc. Sometimes I go into super-go-getter mode – even though it’s late at night, I’ll take care of his request or find the info he wants and email him back. Except that he gets so many emails that he doesn’t even notice I’ve responded super quickly and come Monday morning, he’ll say “oh, I sent you an email about XYZ?”.
    So much for trying to get some brownie points for working after hours!

  16. Lee*

    I too had a boss who would email me at odd hours in the night and on weekends. If for instance she got an idea at 6 a.m., she would email me just then, in spite of a meeting on that task being scheduled at say 9 a.m.

    I never got her accustomed to prompt responses. I ignored her emails on weekends and late nights. And she understood. (I was reprimanded only once or twice for waiting until Monday/the next day… Not bad for a year long stint. ) As long as I acknowledged the email the next day and made sure its contents were implemented she was okay.

    The only thing I found annoying about her habits was that when we get an office email, it gets us thinking about work which kind of puts a dampener on the free time.

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