The fundamental unfairness of the vacation auto reply


With the summer holidays rapidly approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about vacation auto replies.

Here’s the problem: Although anyone who sends you a mail is told not to expect a reply until you get back, they probably still expect an answer at that point. This is fundamentally unfair.

You’re away from work. As part of your contract with the company, you have some time off and yet some of the work from your vacation time is thereby shifted into your post-vacation work days.

And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a company that plans for their employees to have extra time after a vacation to deal with the emails that came in during the vacation. Therefore this becomes extra work you have to do on top of your regular tasks.

One consequence of this is that many people end up checking their emails and responding to them during their holidays, which is also unfair. You’re entitled to time away from work. That’s what a holiday is.

One of the most insidious effects of this is that taking longer stretches of time away from the office is punished immediately upon return, because your inbox will be full to overflowing. I haven’t seen any research on this, but I could easily imagine that this would subconsciously discourage people from taking time off or at the very least increase stress around any time off.

What can we do about it? This policy from Daimler is the solution:

The car and truck maker has implemented a new program that allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on vacation.

When an email is sent, the program, which is called “Mail on Holiday,” issues a reply to the sender that the person is out of the office and that the email will be deleted, while also offering the contact information of another employee for pressing matters.

Brilliant. Now you can go on vacation knowing that when you come back, your inbox will contain the same number of emails as when you left.

I think this is the perfect solution and I would love to see more companies adopt it. Maybe this is something unions could work for in the 21st century.

Your take

Do you have a vacation auto reply? Do you check and reply to emails during your vacation or handle them all when you’re back?  If you go on vacation for 2 weeks, how many mails are going to be in your inbox when you get back? How much time will it take you to deal with them and how do you plan for it?

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12 thoughts on “The fundamental unfairness of the vacation auto reply”

  1. I have an auto-reply but it has my back ups listed for the various lines of business I oversee. When I get back, I check with my back ups so that I know which items are outstanding and actually require my attention. Since part of what I do involves tracking problems, even those are are resolved, it’s still useful to know about them when I get back. It takes a bit of effort to clean out my inbox, but since most of the issues are already resolved, it’s not onerous.

    I don’t check e-mail remotely, in part because there’s an expensive security fob I’d need, and I’ve consciously chosen not to request it.

  2. A good point, Alex and something that I bet very few organisations have considered. Any ideas for the one-man bands who also need their down-time?

  3. I set autoreplies to read. “If you need assistance please be sure to contact XX. I cannot guarantee you a prompt response upon my return” When I return from vacation here’s what I do. I filter out the emails from my superiors and those are the only ones that get a follow up.

    All the other emails are deleted. If a matter is still alive and important, it will come looking for me!!

    I work as a hotel manager. I dreaded taking time off, until I figured out this technique. Hope it works for others!

  4. Hey Alex,

    Great creative solution for a very common problem. I know I have spent days on the beach in Turks and Caicos looking at emails because I didn’t want to have to deal with them when I returned.

    Plus it’s not like anyone respects the out of the office message anyway, letting them know the email is being deleted and pointing them towards the right person is a very elegant solution.

    I really appreciate anything that buys me even a little breathing room so thanks for sharing and I’m going to post this to my followers,


    Jon Lee

  5. Hi Alex,

    You are more than right, every time I take a leave from work, even for a mere week, the result is over a hundred emails.

    Now, this suggestion sounds very good, especially the part when the software refers urgent emails to other workers, currently on duty. Excellent stuff.

    There is a bit of a problem with that, however.

    Every so often, an email will be informative of important matters that took place and while not requiring specific actions at the time, it is still important. Crude example, if i was a lawyer on vacation, I would still have to read on new legislation that the government approved after I leave.

    Same with most managerial positions – reports, statistics and other misc activities are piling up and thats no fun indeed but a manager still needs to know whats going on.

    I completely agree some sort of relief needs to be given to those poor fellows unlucky enough to think they can have some meaningful time off only to return and find themselves buried in cubic tons of emails. One idea that comes to mind is to allow a couple of days of “slack”, when other colleagues will have to understand there will be a delay in response or action from the returned person until he/she catches up on older stuff. Say, few days of “slack”. Therefore new work and older stuff are being taken on pretty much simultaneously, however with much reduced urgency and stress.

    That’s how I imagine it at least, feel free to let me know if my logic, too, contains a flaw :)

    Love your work, keep it up!

  6. Awesome post! Vacation is stressful because you spend more time on vacation worrying about the work you’re missing or should have done rather than actually enjoying yourself. I check my e-mails religiously when I’m on vacation and I’m constantly stressing about the work I have to finish when I go back. Speaking of which….back to work

  7. Thoughtful post! One of the downsides of automation (cell phones, wifi, easily portable computers) is that folks expect you to stay connected 24 x 7. That’s unrealistic and CRAZY. We all need downtime and clear your head time from work to be more creative and have more fun when we return to work. I agree – delete the emails and definitely disconnect during your vacation – otherwise, why take paid vacation days?!? I’ll soon be in Prague, away from my computer, away from my cell phone provider, enjoying my free time!

  8. I like it – the only challenge i see with this is that we have no sense of email decorum whatsoever (not cc’ing the world; To field vs CC field; clear reason for the comm; and i can go on).

    so even if we instituted this nation wide, i feel we’d still have the angry text or call from our boss because we did not respond in 45 minutes. then we’d still get the “i was unaware you are on vacation – do you have a quick second?” openings despite the fact that we were either swimming with dolphins, skiing a double black diamond or cresting Mt. Rainier.

    what i have done for many years is provide my cell phone and say that if it is an emergency, call. this typically causes a barrier where people must ask themselves if it is an emergency. the couple times i was challenged why i did not respond to the email or provide the product needed by a specific date, i ask why they did not call me. this usually diffuses the situation

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