Setting Work Boundaries for Holidays & Vacations

illustration of a woman working on a laptop while on vacation

Remember, back when you were interviewing for your job, how delighted you were about the number of paid holidays and vacation days you’d be getting? You were probably excited because you know how good it feels to take a break where you are totally and happily disconnected from the happenings at the office. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to happen. 

Thanks to technology though, and smartphones specifically, we are constantly connected. This makes it really hard to actually unplug from work when you’re on vacation. Even if your boss respects your time off and isn’t calling you, you might still be tempted to check your email where you’ll find a message from a client or colleague who does not have that same respect. Then, once you’ve seen the message it will be near-impossible to ignore it until you return to the office. 


When it comes to your time off, it’s important to set boundaries to ensure you are getting an actual break from work while you’re out. This means managing expectations at the office, and setting (and respecting) boundaries for yourself, too. You only get so many vacation days in a year, so you should make the most of them. 

Vacation is important

Since you’re human and not a machine, it’s essential to your physical and mental health that you stop now and then to take a break. If you don’t make time to rest you’ll be well on your way to burnout—a whole new level of exhaustion that will take much longer to recover from. 

Whether it’s taking a trip to see family, staying home in your pajamas for a week or soaking up the sun in the Caribbean, that time off makes a significant impact on your well-being. Data from a study in 2018 found that for every 10 paid vacation days, women’s depression lowered by 29%. Of all of those women, the ones that benefited the most, with depression dropping 38% for every 10 paid vacation days, were the women with children. 

A similar study in 2018 also noted the positive effects vacation has on mental health, even if it’s just for a few days and there’s no travel involved. The researchers found “one single short-term vacation...has large, positive and immediate effects on perceived stress, recovery, strain and well-being.” Also, they found that these effects lasted for 30 to 45 days after the vacation had ended. 

It’s not just your mental health that benefits from this, either. Your career will as well. As an experiment, one company made taking vacation mandatory for its employees and told them that if they contacted anyone for work-based reasons, through any platform, they would lose their pay for that day. Basically, they were truly holding up their end of the bargain of paid time off. After 12 weeks of this experiment, the company reported a 33% increase in employee creativity, a 25% increase in employee happiness and a 13% increase in employee productivity. 

The TL;DR -- You are both a better person and a better employee when you actually step away from work when you’re on vacation.  

Setting boundaries

So, you know the importance of unplugging from work as much as possible when you’re out on vacation, but how do you actually make it happen? Just how much you can realistically disconnect depends a lot on your specific job and your company’s culture, but even in a position where you are expected to be “on” all the time, you can still set some boundaries. 

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First, before you come up with your boundaries, make sure you read through your company’s vacation policy. Find out if it explicitly states you need to check emails or be available for calls during your time away (hopefully it doesn’t). Once you have a good understanding of the company’s formal expectations of you, you can start establishing your boundaries and communicating them to your supervisor, team and/or clients. 

Depending on your role, you’ll need to do more than just communicate your boundaries if you want them to be respected, you’ll also need to plan ahead, make sure your work is covered and identify someone as your back-up in case something urgent comes up. Before you turn on your out-of-office auto-reply, get the team caught up on where things stand with important clients or projects and show them where to get more information if they need it. 

If everyone feels confident that the office isn’t going to fall apart without you there, they’ll be much more likely to respect your boundaries. 

When boundaries aren’t respected

Unfortunately, things happen and sometimes even the best bosses in the world have to contact an employee when they’re on vacation. There is no definitive right or wrong way to respond to something like this because context is everything. For instance, a small problem that can be managed just fine without your input deserves a completely different response than when your team needs access to a password-protected document that only you have the password for. 

If you’re dealing with a boss, teammate or client who knows you’re on vacation and is contacting you for something non-urgent, you can choose to let your out-of-office reply do the work for you until you’re back in the office or you can respond to them. If you opt to respond, stay professional, reiterate your boundaries while you’re away and either direct them to your back-up person or assure them you’ll work on the issue as soon as you’re back in the office.

f you’re logging into your email and responding to a message or two, you’re relaying the message that you’re available even though you’re on vacation.

One thing to remember here, though, is that you need to respect your own boundaries, too. If you’re logging into your email and responding to a message or two, you’re relaying the message that you’re available even though you’re on vacation. You can’t expect other people to follow the rules if you don’t also hold yourself to them. 

Making exceptions 

When you’re being contacted for something that is truly urgent and cannot be managed without you, it’s likely worth making an exception. If it’s a quick and easy fix, then get it handled and get right back to relaxing by the pool. However, if it’s something that’s going to require a bit of your time, make sure you’re keeping track of the hours you’re working on it because you’ll want that time back. Your vacation time is yours, it is a benefit to working where you do, so if you spend six hours of your vacation working on a project make sure you request that time be given back to you somehow once you return to work. 

Depending on your role, you might have to check your email regularly even when you’re on vacation. If you know you have to make this exception, you can still set boundaries around it by informing your team that you’ll only be checking your email once or twice a day at specific times. This way they know that if they send you an email at 10:00 am you won’t see or respond to it until your next check-in at 8:00 am tomorrow. 

It’s okay to be flexible with your boundaries when you need to as long as you’re not being taken advantage of or getting robbed of your much-needed vacation time. 

Sit back and enjoy

Even when you’re blissfully looking out into the ocean and listening to the waves crash, it can still be really hard to disconnect from something you're invested in at work. Still, try to unplug so you can destress and relax a little. Remember, all of this boundary setting is ultimately going to make you a happier and healthier person (and employee). Plus, you undoubtedly work hard, so you deserve this break.

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