How to set boundaries at work when taking time off

Emily Whitton
By Emily Whitton,
updated on Jul 20, 2023

Image shows three books stacked on a table on a beach with a pair of sunglasses on top of them.

Do you have some time off coming up? We discuss the importance of setting boundaries and how to implement them at work

Whether you’re off for a day or two with no plans or you’re going on an extended family holiday abroad, setting firm boundaries at work is key to being able to switch off and recharge your batteries. But, how exactly can you prepare to leave your workload behind on the run-up to annual leave, and why are setting boundaries so important?

In the UK, the average person will spend 3,507 days working during their lifetime. That’s roughly 85,000 hours – so it really is no wonder that we’re an “always on” culture and may explain why as many as 60% of us are checking our emails even when we’re on holiday.

Setting boundaries both with yourself and your colleagues can be easier said than done. For many of us, we may feel more relaxed when we have some idea of what’s going on at work and an expectation of what we’re going to come back to. In a survey by YouGov, nearly half (47%) of those who check their emails ‘very often’ say they’d prefer to stay on top of what’s going on at work during time off.

Monitoring emails or conversations in Slack can help us feel on top of the workload and plan for our return, making us feel more in control and less overwhelmed. But is this really giving your body and mind the space it needs to take a breather? The short answer is, no. Let’s take a look at some of the implications of not being fully present with periods of leave.

Why setting boundaries during time off is so important

  • You’re less likely to burn out. According to Hive, not being fully disconnected from work is just fuelling burnout. Allow yourself to detach from work and truly relax are the two key things that contribute to mental recovery.
  • The impacts can be physical. A study from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that people who worked more than 55 hours a week were at an increased risk of heart disease and strokes due to stress.
  • It defines the line between work/life balance. When you’re taking time off, whether it’s for yourself or to spend it with family, it’s important to make the most of that time and be in the ‘here and now.’ Try to create lasting memories, rather than ruminating on the things that are going on at work.
  • It puts things into perspective. Knowing that everything is in place before you go away helps you realise that the important bits are taken care of and anything else can wait until you’re back. Remember that your work will be there when you return and people will respect that they might have to wait a little longer for a reply.

We understand the importance of setting boundaries when taking time off for our physical and mental wellbeing, but how do we actually implement them in the first place?

How do I set boundaries when taking time off?

Tell your colleagues in advance

Inform your colleagues that you’re going to be away, mark it in the calendar and set an out-of-office to remind them. This will help lower their expectations when it comes to your response times, but it also gives them the opportunity to ask for anything that they might need from you before your time off.

Create a handover document

In a similar vein to the above, creating a document that outlines everything you’re currently working on, any projects that are due to launch whilst you’re away and the tasks you plan to do when you’re back helps keep everybody in the loop. If you need any work to be covered in your absence, this is also a great place to write down exactly what you need from your team members.

Get clear on what an “emergency” means

If you’re happy to be contacted in an emergency, make sure that your colleagues know what this actually means. Now, this is very much dependent on the industry you work in and your job role. For example, if you’re a senior member or manager, you might be more likely to have to deal with emergency situations. To ensure that you’re not being contacted unnecessarily, define the instances in which you can be contacted.

Forward plan

This applies to both before your leave and on your return to work. In the lead-up to time off, try to plan your workload responsibly. Make sure that you’re prioritising the things that need to be done before you go and set yourself reasonable goals. If you’re unsure what needs to be done, check in with your line manager. Similarly, it can be really useful to have an idea of what you're going to do when you come back, so you can settle back into a routine feeling refreshed.

Top tip: If possible, avoid jumping straight back into meetings and try to factor in a ‘catch-up’ day to work through emails and get back up to speed. 

Respect your own boundaries

This one might sound a little silly, but if you’re not honouring the boundaries you’ve set for yourself and other people, then you’re giving the message that you’re available even when you’re on holiday. So, be clear about what it is you will and won’t be doing and try to stick to it. Life Coach Directory member, Helen Snape, says, “No one will honour your boundaries unless you do too.” Helen’s advice is to check in with yourself before you immediately agree to something. Instead of jumping in with “yes”, try “I’ll get back to you” or “I need to check my calendar” first.

What to do when boundaries aren’t respected

It can be hard to know how to respond if your boundaries are broken when on holiday. For example, if only you have the password to a document that others need access to, this response is going to be different to someone trying to get hold of you for something that, really, can wait. If you choose to respond, stay professional and reiterate your boundaries. Direct them to the next best person to help, or reassure them that you’ll work on it when you return.

Remember that everyone’s boundaries are different and others might expect you to follow the same boundaries as them. For example, you might feel pressure from your boss to check your emails when you’re on holiday because that’s something that they do. In this situation, Helen recommends reinforcing why your boundaries are important to you. For example, “It’s important for me to have time away when I can totally switch off and recharge. That way I will be productive when I am at work.”

It can be hard to look beyond ‘email anxiety’ and totally log off when you’re on holiday, particularly if you know there’s a lot going on at work. It’s really important to give yourself the distance to relax and unwind, so you can come back to work feeling re-energised and motivated to take on your next project.

If you’re struggling to set boundaries and maintain a healthy work/life balance, you might benefit from working with a professional, such as a coach, to help you recognise what’s important to you.

So, with that, turn on your out-of-office, switch off and embrace this time for you. And if you haven’t got any time off in your calendar yet, take this as your prompt to get something in the diary!

Emily Whitton

By Emily Whitton

Emily Whitton is a Content Creator and Marketing Coordinator at Happiful

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