You Should Be Using an Email Signature That Protects Your Time

And inspires others to do the same

Photo: Cytonn Photography/Unsplash

“I do not respond to emails on weekends. If this is an emergency, please call my mobile. If you do not have my mobile number, then you do not have a weekend emergency.”

That was one professor’s bold out-of-office reply, and when it was discovered by the internet, it spurred a lively conversation about boundaries, office hours, and email practices. Stephana Cherak, a graduate student at the University of Calgary whose tweet sparked the discussion, later wrote a piece in the scientific publication Nature about the conversation in response to her viral tweet. The debate focused on the question of whether more people should employ either out-of-office auto-responses or disclaimers below their signature in outgoing emails that indicate boundaries about email and time management and serve to reassure the recipient that they need only respond on their own time.

Writer Anne Helen Petersen also recently mentioned the boundary-setting tool on Twitter: “A great, thoughtful, email signature on the message I just read while excavating my cave of an inbox: My working day may not be your working day. Please don’t feel obliged to reply to this e-mail outside of your normal working hours.”

These two disclaimers take slightly different tones that aim to accomplish the same thing: informing an email recipient that the sender uses particular hours of the day to tackle their email, and that might not match up with yours.

It’s a device I think more of us should use in our own emails. Americans already work longer hours than any other developed country in the world while 2017 research shows that academics, specifically, work an average of 57 hours a week. Setting up an email disclaimer noting the specific hours that you spend emailing does everyone a favor: It provides some sort of comfort to the recipient that the lack of an immediate response isn’t personal and can possibly ease their own anxiety about responding right away; it also reaffirms your own boundaries to yourself and others that you will only respond to nonemergency messages at certain times. This helps keep your workload down and helps prevent work from creeping into your leisure time.

The ease with which work seeps into all aspects of our lives, in particular for “knowledge workers” and others who work office jobs, is what’s known as “constant connectivity” — and it’s terrible for your health. A 2020 study found that laptops, tablets, and smartphones facilitate this constant connectivity, which makes it next to impossible for employees to disconnect from work when they’re supposed to be clocked out. Workers need adequate time to spend physically, emotionally, and intellectually disengaged from work to allow them to recover and recharge. Workers who can do this successfully, studies show, experience less psychological strain and stress from work than those who struggle to disengage.

But mobile devices make that really hard. I, and countless others, check their email immediately upon waking. We take work calls while walking the dog. We covertly “phub” our romantic partners at dinner to send a quick Slack message. But the 2020 study found that being constantly connected to work lowers our overall health and well-being. It also showed that employees implicitly set connectivity norms for each other, so if you have a colleague who will respond to work emails at any time of the day or night, it sets an example for others at the company that they, too, need to adopt a similar email practice. Bosses compound this effect; a boss who sends and responds to emails at 8 p.m. reinforces to their employees that the behavior is expected.

An email disclaimer can go a long way in ensuring to colleagues that your own email practices are not necessarily to be emulated or worried about.

Nick Bowman, PhD, an associate professor of creative media industries at Texas Tech University, has an email disclaimer below his signature that reads, “Please note that my working hours might vary substantially from yours. Thus, please do not feel any pressure or obligation to respond to messages on my schedule.” He says it helps keep him accountable to his workflow while also signaling to his colleagues that he really doesn’t need a response right away.

“Far too often, folks tend to feel as if emails are pseudo-synchronous communications that need to be attended to immediately — I suspect that Covid-19 has increased this pressure, with so many of us working from home and thus using email as a proxy for a simple ‘pop my head in and ask a question’ sort of deal,” he says. The messages, he says, also serve as a reminder to his colleagues that he’s not necessarily free when they are.

The disclaimers can be particularly advantageous if used by managers. “I do have to end up working at odd hours in order to catch up on all of my work. So I may get up at 3 a.m. and try to finish my email trail,” says David Perlmutter, PhD, the dean of the college of media and communication at Texas Tech. “Well, no matter how much I reassure staff orally that just because I sent them an email at 3:22 a.m. that didn’t mean that I expected the response at 3:23, there still is an ‘I just got a message from the boss!’ psychology that you can understand how staff would feel.” He says he hopes that his email disclaimer, which he’s had for a couple of years, affirms to his students and fellow faculty that his early-morning messages aren’t emergencies unless he specifically calls it that.

While a disclaimer can help your recipients understand that their email habits need not mimic yours, it’s also an important boundary you can set for yourself. If you say in your email disclaimer that “I check email twice a day between 9–10 a.m. ET and between 3:30–4:30 p.m. ET,” it serves as a reminder to you that you probably don’t actually need to be sending and receiving emails all day and night. A 2015 study found that when employees “batched” their email or checked it in chunks three times a day, they were less stressed out and generally felt better than when they were allowed to check their email as many times as they wanted.

In an excerpt from his 2021 book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport suggests a similar method to decreasing email stress: email “office hours.”

Your office hours are when people can get in touch with you with questions, concerns, or just to chat. This, Newport writes, reduces the cognitive load incurred by constantly sending messages back and forth all day. After all, how useful, really, are most of those emails, Slacks, and texts from co-workers? And does it really need to be attended to immediately, or is it something that can wait? In all likelihood, it can wait until 2 p.m. or whenever that person’s office hours are. An email disclaimer or even an out-of-office reply can make it clear to people trying to get in touch with you that you are available at 2 p.m., and they can either wait or try again at that time.

Julie Olson-Buchanan, the interim dean at the Craig School of Business at California State University, Fresno, says she’s been contemplating adding an email disclaimer to her own signature after seeing them on emails from colleagues at other universities. She notes, however, that a disclaimer reassuring a co-worker that you don’t expect a response might not mean much if it accompanies an intense or upsetting message, even one not deemed an “emergency.”

“Receiving an email that raises a potentially worrisome topic after hours — even with a disclaimer — can still have an effect on the recipient’s reaction,” she says. “As managers, I think it is good to continue to be careful about when certain emails are sent as receiving an email from your manager can elicit some ruminating and concern on the part of the recipient.”

In other words, don’t send your employee an 8 p.m. email with the subject line “Your recent performance” even with a disclaimer.

Email disclaimers aren’t going to be a magic solution to constant connectivity or workaholism. But they help create a culture of respect for other people’s time that our phones and laptops are continually seeking to erode. It’s reassuring to know that someone who sends me an email honors their own boundaries, and it helps others feel comfortable maintaining theirs.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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