Confession: I used to have severe email anxiety. I would get so stressed out about missing an email, or answering one too late, that I would force myself into work even when I knew I was sick, out of fear of falling behind. Instead of going home on time, I would choose to stay late and answer any incoming emails, because the sheer knowledge that they'd be sitting there, waiting for me in my inbox, drove me up the wall. The one time I did feel a smidge of relief was when I was traveling. The second I put up my out of office message, the stress would melt right off my shoulders. There was a real comfort in knowing that the people emailing me, whether it be my boss or an outside contact, wouldn't think I was lazy for not immediately replying, or bad at my job.
While I definitely don't feel the same level of anxiety as I did back then, I still get somewhat obsessive when it comes to reading my emails, which creates an unnecessary source of stress in my life. This realization led me to wonder: what if I could use my out of office when I was simply, literally, out of office — like when I left for the day?
So as an experiment, I put up an away message each time I left my office for the day, including the full length of the weekend. I wanted to see if using an away message regularly, as defense mechanism to protect my right to enjoy my time off of work, would relieve some of the tension — and the results were astounding.
There's a lot of discussion around creating the appropriate work-life balance, but people do very little to institute these boundaries. According to a 2018 report by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40% of surveyed workers cited their jobs as extremely stressful, and 25% claimed it as the number one stressor in their lives. Work stress is also associated with a number of health problems, from digestion issues to hair loss. So why then, do we spend our weekends obsessing over the weekdays, and our evenings dreading the next morning?
At first, the experience of having my out of office up only added to my anxiety: I was extremely concerned that contacts would find the away message rude or unprofessional. I cringed when an email from my boss came in over the weekend, yearning to immediately open it up and respond. But I remained steadfast in my mission and waited until Monday morning. And to my surprise, nothing happened! There were no consequences for not sending an immediately reply, and I was able to truly reclaim my time. For the first time in ages, I entered the week with a clear mind.
As the week went on, I began to look forward to putting up my away message at 6 p.m. It felt like hanging a "closed" sign on my inbox — it allowed me to do whatever my heart desired during my well-earned time at home, free of guilt. Little things that I had previously taken for granted found their way back to me, like watching an entire hour-long TV show on Netflix without checking my phone, to going to the movies with my partner and not feeling a pang of anxiety when I couldn't check. Even riding the subway to and from work felt more free, as the lack of service no longer haunted me. For the very first time, I could choose to unplug.
Now that my week is up, I am working to find a way to incorporate my new sense of mindfulness into my daily routine. The cost of your wellbeing will catch up to you — brain burnout is all too real. From now on, I'm going to make sure that I do at least one thing that serves me each day, whether that means spending time with a loved one, applying a face mask, or wasting way too much time on Reddit reading Westworld fan theories. You will never be able to solve the world's problems until you address your own — and in the long run, your mind and body will thank you for it.