A hiker in the mountains at sunset checks a mobile device.

The 24/7, ‘always-on’ nature of modern life is not sustainable.Credit: Getty

Setting an out-of-office reply for your e-mail should come with a sense of satisfaction — marking that moment when you’re about to take off for a much-needed break.

But in today’s research world — as in perhaps most lines of work — an out-of-office message can seem little more than creative fiction. The message’s existence and the sender’s absence will not bring work to a halt. They don’t prevent an overworked researcher from feeling the need to check their inbox while away; nor do they stop senders attempting to contact people who are on holiday and expecting a reply.

Some out-of-office messages do a better job. Last October, Stephana Cherak, an epidemiologist at the University of Calgary in Canada, received an impressive example from a colleague. “I do not respond to e-mails on weekends,” it read. “If this is an emergency, please call my mobile. If you do not have my mobile number, then you do not have a weekend emergency.”

Cherak approvingly tweeted the message. Of the many responses — and more than 4,000 re-tweets — many expressed support for drawing firm boundaries around time off, or offered their own tips. “My life has gotten much better since I decided that I don’t need ‘fastest/best/most consistent e-mail responder’ to be part of my professional legacy,” wrote @popmediaprof. And @runforbooze recommended that people politely write “I don’t expect an immediate reply” if they have to send a message out of office hours.

We asked Cherak to reflect on this experience — and her own efforts to redress her work–life balance, which included putting a stop to her previous 14-hour work days. In a column in Nature’s Careers section, she had advice for all those trying to balance work with the rest of life (S. Cherak Nature 578, 179–180; 2020). One recommendation is to ask for support from colleagues and supervisors.

Such support is vital, and employers must recognize that their staff need it when they are away. Indeed, in France, the ‘right to disconnect’ became the law in 2017, after organizations representing employees campaigned against the expectation for 24/7 e-mail responsiveness. Companies with more than 50 staff members are now obliged to discourage out-of-hours and holiday e-mail communication. Some firms even shut down their e-mail servers overnight.

Where changing the law isn’t an option, a team of organizational psychologists at the University of Manchester, UK, has suggested setting up a ‘bounce-back’, so that e-mails received during time off are automatically returned to the sender. Another method is simply to delete the contents of an inbox after a holiday: if a sender needs a response, they will e-mail again.

There are several ways in which employers can support their staff when they take breaks, as psychologist Emma Russell at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, told the Nature Podcast. This could include helping to put work on hold, accepting that projects will take a little longer and ensuring that essential tasks can be covered when colleagues are away.

Switching off from work is increasingly difficult — we at Nature struggle with this as much as does any organization. An out-of-office message must mean what it says if we are to have any hope of turning things around.