Email Overload

Q. What are the rules for how often you need to check email when you aren’t at work? My boss sends emails all day and all night long on weekdays and weekends; they all have a call of action. I don’t watch the clock and I respond to emails that I need to until about eight at night and I’ll spend some time online on the weekends. I’m not going to work 24 hours a day, and on vacation I want to unplug. How can I tell her to back off?

A. “Back off” is probably not how you want to start a conversation with your boss, even though you may find her intensity off-putting. It’s time for a conversation, and a live one – not an email or text tennis match. Hopefully you have regularly scheduled meetings; you need to discuss expectations for response time to emails, frequency of checking emails and a definition of what can wait and what can’t.

Many executives use email as a “stream of consciousness” mode of communication. They give little thought to when they send emails, or the concern the recipient might have about the expectations of action. They often lose track of when they send something and wonder what the delay is; you may have received an email at 11PM with a follow up wondering where the data is at 7AM the following morning.


Each organization, different levels within an organization and often each group within an organization, has a culture unto itself when it comes to communications and urgency. Coming to an agreement on the norms is the challenge. Since I am sure you are not the only one impacted by the aggressive emailer, you and your colleagues need to agree on some standards before you move ahead on the discussion plan. Generate a list of issues to determine reasonable and unreasonable demands that your boss might make, or that you might make on each other.
Which topics should be communicated by voicemail as opposed to email? If something is very urgent, can you expect the person to be sitting by his or her desktop/laptop/phone ready to get your message? During the work day, how long is too long to not respond to a message? Do you need to deliver on a request, or just acknowledge receipt and provide a time frame for where ”on the to do list” the request is? What’s the norm for checking email on the weekend? Is once a day enough if you are heavily involved in a work issue? or is it more often?
And what about vacations? Many people will say they are leaving the country to get away from email; that often doesn’t work. A large majority of employees will have out of office messages saying they wont be checking, but do check to make their own life easier.
To renew, people need to be able to step away and managers need to encourage that. There are times we all need to be more connected as opposed to less, and leaders need to make sure expectations are clear and reasonable for all levels of employees. Let your boss know you want to be responsive and ask about her expectations. Helping her see the challenge she presents to her team, and how she might benefit from downtime can make your life much easier.
-Elaine Varelas, Managing Partner, Keystone Partners

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