Why we’re all sending passive-aggressive out of office emails this month

Written by Kimberley Bond

A great inbox revolt is under way – Stylist looks into why we are writing and receiving more and more pass-agg out of office messages. 

Yes, it’s that time of year again – those two weeks in August where just about everyone seems to up sticks and go on their summer holidays.

Whether you’ve decided to leave the humid thunderstorms of Blighty for more exotic climes, or you’re just looking to put your feet up at home, there’s one place many of us aren’t going: the office (virtually or otherwise).

But as our work lives and home lives have become increasingly muddied over the past few years, more and more workers are determined to reclaim their holiday time as their own in the form of passive-aggressive out of office messages.

Some of us on the receiving end of these stern OOOs have shared the results on Twitter.

“I will be away until 5th September,” one such message reads. “I am not accessible. Nor is anyone else.”

A second says: “I am on annual leave. If your issue is urgent, please either re-evaluate your idea of urgent, or consider whether email is an appropriate means to contact an anaesthetist in an emergency.”

While a third, droll out of office read: “I will delete all emails upon my return, so it’ll be best if you just don’t send any.”

This more overt rejection of constant availability is symptomatic of people feeling fed up with their personal time being infringed on, says Daniella Genas, innovation expert and host of the She’s The Boss podcast.

“As a culture, we now expect instant responses and put those expectations on others,” she tells Stylist. “Yet not everyone feels that way and often through their out of offices want to let others not only know that, but question themselves as to why they believe they should get an instant response.

“It is about setting clear boundaries and expectations. These passive-aggressive messages may serve as a reminder to people in some instances that it is OK to have a life outside of working and responding.”

With smart technology meaning the majority of us have our inboxes permanently in our pockets, there is an expectation in some workplaces that we should be checking our emails, even when we’ve booked annual leave.

“The advent of new technology has certainly made us less patient,” says James Jackson, professor of psychology specialising in stress at Leeds Trinity University. “Our social habits have really started to bleed into our professional values – for the worse.”

Working life has changed almost unrecognisably post-pandemic, with permanent home-working, or hybrid office models, being implemented in office jobs across the UK. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows one in seven adults now permanently work from home, while 42% of people now split their time between the home office and their actual office.

This may have resulted in people being more precious about time at home when they’re not obliged (or paid) to be contactable, says Genas.

“Lockdown definitely blurred the lines between work time and home/rest time,” she says. “So many of us began working from home, many still are, and found it quite difficult to switch off from work. Subsequently, many people found themselves working much longer hours than they had when working in the office. There was no end-of-the-day commute to wind down and break up the day.

“However, because of this, many people found themselves becoming burnt out and recognised how problematic it was to be constantly switched on. People began to recognise that not switching off actually made them less productive in the long run and was also making them miserable,” says Genas. 

“There has subsequently been somewhat of a change of priority for many people, who now recognise the importance of switching off and spending time doing non-work-related activity. Boundaries have been put in place, with more people valuing rest and family time.”

This culture of being constantly contactable is leading to workers feeling burned out, which may explain the slightly ruder (even if tongue-in-cheek) out of office messages.

Long gone is the Great Resignation; 2022 is now about the Great Exhaustion. ONS stats show that 1.1 million people in the UK now have a second job to supplement their primary income, while a third of workers are seeking further employment as the cost of living crisis threatens to plunge many working families, who may have once been comfortable, into debt.

We were previously celebratory of this hustle culture in its inception, but the need to be constantly working has made the time we’re not at the grindstone rarer.

“This whole idea of ‘rest when you are dead’ is something that has become increasingly popular over the last decade, particularly with the rise of social media. If you aren’t seen to be being productive and busy, then you are not seen as being successful,” says career coach Phoebe Gavin.

“But the results of constantly hustling and being productive is burnout. Constant productivity is not sustainable as our bodies and our minds need rest. Burnout is increasingly impacting peoples mental and physical wellbeing. This is why I feel that it is a dangerous narrative that really needs to end.”

Excessive stress can be toxic to our bodies too, says Jackson.

“Human beings are bad at chronic stress,” he explains. “We have the ability to worry about things that haven’t happened yet. If you get an email on Saturday knowing you have to deal with it on Monday, you then have two days worrying about it.

“The very worst possible stress is regular intermittent stress. If you have something like an email notification pop up every two hours, you are constantly and chronically stressed. Cortisol, a stress hormone, can last in your body for a long time, and can be constantly topped up if we’re seeing more stressors.

“An excessive release of cortisol over a sustained period of time can result in weight gain, lack of sleep and overall burnout.”

But there are ways to counter out of office emails that may be hiking your stress levels.

If you’re in a role where it’s necessary to have a quick peek at your inbox, sometimes an out of office specifying the exact times you are able to respond to enquiries may be of use.

“People that do this recognise the importance of setting boundaries and communicating those boundaries with people who contact them,” Genas says. “They recognise that they don’t need to always be on and always available but are being considerate in letting people know when they can expect to receive a response.

“This a great way to ensure that you don’t get sucked into dealing with emails and conversations that impact your productivity. Emails, messages and calls can all be energy draining and incredibly distracting. Not allowing these things to creep into your day at random moments ensures that you stick to the tasks at hand and utilise your energy productively.”

Gavin agrees. “There are some jobs where it really is just very difficult to completely unplug,” she says. “Leaving very specific times when you’re wanting to check in on your email and being really clear that emails of a certain priority are going to be dealt with is actually a great way for you to have some boundaries and still reclaim some of your vacation time.”

In fact, Gavin believes that choosing to leave passive-aggressive out of office messages, even if they are intended to be funny, could have a detrimental effect on your professionalism.

“They’re just not the best way to advocate for a better work-life balance,” she says. “It’s not a good look – you’re basically punishing people who really don’t have anything to do with your situation and putting them in a position where their priorities and their message is considered inconsequential. I don’t think that is a good look. I think that that comes off as very entitled, selfish and privileged.

“If I received a response like that, it would make me think less of them as a professional and less of them as a collaborator.”

So if you’re itching to leave a sarky reply, or if burnout may be pushing you to stress about the state of your inbox, there are some ways to counter your email hangover.

“It’s important to set boundaries for work, including setting times for breaks, starting and ending your day, and when you can and cannot be contacted,” Genas says. “Be sure to set device-free time each day. Schedule time into your day and week to rest, exercise and participate in wellbeing-related activity. And reduce the number of tasks you are trying to get through each day. Focus on the tasks that are moving you closer to your goals rather than doing tasks for doing tasks’ sake.”

But the most important thing to bear in mind is to not punish yourself for taking a well-earned rest.

“Stop feeling guilty if you don’t get everything done,” Genas adds. “Accept that you can’t do everything and that is OK.”

Image: Getty

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