Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Out of Office for Real


Taking a few days off for Labor Day Weekend? Be a role model for your colleagues. Turn on a real out of office reply. You’ll never look back, I promise.

“I am currently out of the office with limited access to email. I will return your message when I return.”


You click “send automatic replies,” turn off the light, and head home for ten days of much needed vacation with family.


For the vast majority of Americans, what then happens is, at best, we check email a little less often. For me, it used to mean I would turn my work email off on my phone and check it twice a day. Like many physicians, I receive about 100 emails a day, so the stress of coming back to at least 1,000 emails was sure to ruin my vacation.  So, I’d delete the junk, read the important stuff, reply to the critical things, and weigh in on a few things that I just didn’t want anyone to screw up.


One year, when I came home from vacation, I just didn’t put email back on my phone. And you know what?  No one noticed but me.  Gone was the peri-shower check to read the email that arrived between 10pm when I turned off my computer and when I got out of the house and arrived at work.  The extra 90 minutes or so of not reading email didn’t cause my world to fall apart. Instead, the anxiety that often came from an irritating email no longer led to stressed out commutes.


I now commute with my cup of tea and a mind that can wander around thinking about the coming day or the interesting piece on NPR. When I get to work and turn on my desktop, I’m more ready to face that email someone sent at 11pm.  And in the elevator, I’m more likely to make eye contact and smile at my co-travelers. I pride myself on being available to my residents and colleagues, but I probably can spare the walk between office buildings for my own thoughts, not email.


Two family vacations ago, I decided to take on the Out of Office.  Dr. Jenny Rudolph from the Center for Medical Simulation, who has since led a book club podcast on this topic, inspired me with her own out of office message that included a link to a New York Times article about creativity being fueled by down time.  Could I do it?


I sent an email to my residents, my residency admin team, and my outpatient office team: I wasn’t going to be checking email while I was on vacation. Since absolutely no one I know respects their own “out of office” message, I needed to be sure people knew I was for real, and that if there were truly an emergency they should call or text. And then I did it. I worked furiously that night cleaning out my Inbox, and when I toggled on “send automatic replies,” I meant it for the first time in my life.


The first day I worried about work more than I’d like to admit. But I stayed true; I didn’t check. The second day I still had unease that I might be missing out on things. But I held back; I was enjoying the beach more. By day three, work was behind me. It was the most refreshing and wonderful vacation my family has ever had.


I work with incredible teams, and they didn’t need me when I was gone. We all want to feel needed, but it was liberating for me, and I imagine empowering for the teams I lead.


And what about those 1,000 emails? Well, there were lots, but not 1,000, because it turns out, when you aren’t replying, people stop emailing you!  And digging out didn’t feel any worse than coming back from vacation ever did.  It was all win, no lose.


Now, I proselytize about the joy that comes from going email-free. Recently, Dr. Margaret Chisolm tweeted out a WSJ article by Matthew Kitchen about the “always-on” work culture and I replied right away, which led to my writing this essay. Kitchen’s article struck a chord with me. Technology has insidiously grown branches that have wrapped us in a choking embrace we don’t always even recognize.  Unless we stop, notice, and make an active choice to disentangle ourselves and unplug, we only fall deeper into its clutches.


Why not take the plunge? Turning off work email on your phone involves a mere swipe of the finger. What do you have to lose?


Vacation coming up?  Be a role model for your kids, for your residents, for your colleagues.  Toggle on a real out of office. You’ll never look back, I promise.


“Thank you for your email. I am on vacation enjoying time fully present with my family. I will not be checking email, which I highly recommend. The good news is that I work with incredible teams, so if you need something before I return they can help you.”