When Your Manager Fails at Downtime...

4 min read

When I was younger, I had a manager that would email me at 8pm and try and call if I didn't respond by 10. I am lucky to have not repeated that mistake since - the mistake being working for someone who expects instant responses no matter what someone else's schedule was. The type of manager who will approve your vacation request, but then 3 days before you are leaving tell you that you need to cancel it and reschedule. The type of manager who imagines that the only person whose time matters is theirs.

There are people who will read the above paragraph and wonder what is wrong with me, not what is wrong with the manager, and to those people I say what is wrong with me is that work is like any relationship: Some give and take, some compromise, some mutual successes, and some mutual failures. Rather, that is positive, successful relationships function like that. The relationships where one side is all take are failures... for the person who is the giver. The person who is taking gets what they want.

The manager that I had early on in my career set me on a path to have a very strong opinion on what is right in the workplace.

What's the benefit here? If I'm working at 8pm and want to know an answer, should I stress one of my people out to get it by 10pm? What value does that have before the next workday, and what's the driving factor? Does the client (internal or external) have inappropriate expectations that I'm failing to meet, or have I failed to set appropriate boundaries and instead of doing my job - managing expectations - I simply pass the buck on to an employee? Or am I the one driving the ask, and I haven't set appropriate boundaries for myself?

I don't generally respond to emails after 6pm. I don't send them before 6am if it can be avoided. This protects me and it protects my team. I have told my team not to respond to emails during off hours - in fact, I've threatened to lock their email accounts for PTO/Vacation.

Most people need down time. This is important for me because lack of down time leads to rapid burnout. I know anecdotally from first hand experience, but I also know that studies show that it's necessary to find a solid balance between being active and involved with work and separated from it. Other commentary shows that many workers suffer vacation-burnout, where stress about the work not getting done leads to feeling worse at the end of a time off period.

I am fortunate enough to, in my last few career moves, work for people that foster good time-off cultures, and I have found how beneficial that is. Making sure that while my people are out, they know that I'm protecting their time away and nobody gets to mess with that.

Harvard Business Review posted an article some time ago about how vacation systems are broken, standard and mandatory PTO stresses people out, but unlimited PTO is like a race to the bottom of who can use least. It stated that one company had solved this by scheduling mandatory PTO at staggered times, allowing for the best of all worlds - but this is overkill. If we foster a healthy attitude toward downtime and manage both up and down about expectations, boundaries, and cooperative work, many people will feel empowered to take the vacation time they have earned.

Why is this even necessary? Especially in IT, but across all professions, there's little expectation of being 'offline' - perhaps not literally, but in a way that satisfies the mental need to disconnect and recharge. Some people don't really have this need, but many do, and so respecting that and encouraging it creates a more positive work environment. When you have a more positive environment, you get not just a more productive single employee, but more productive teams. Turnover goes down, results go up.

This has mostly focused on the necessity of creating and supporting a team where healthy balance is encouraged, but there's a caveat to this: just as any manager can be abusive of that role and the power dynamic that exists in a reporting structure, employees can abuse this too. Overuse of PTO, unplanned PTO, and constant requests for time away can sometimes play in to a sunk cost fallacy where an employee's performance is concerned. Everyone must be wary of those people who are 'takers' no matter which side of the reporting structure they exist on.

With that said, I try to err on the side of generosity. Personally, my asks are simple: Communicate your plans well in advance. Doing so allows me to be mindful of a person's needs and work with and for them to protect that time away, so it doesn't become the dreaded stress-filled vacation.

What is the conclusion? One that is more easily said than done: set boundaries. Enforce them. Do not allow yourself to feel guilty about refusing to be taken advantage of. Some years after the above manager abused my good graces, I had an interview. During that interview, my future manager mentioned "We may need you to work strange hours or more than you're used to." I took that opportunity to reply "I'll guarantee you 40 hours every week, with the expectation that there will be crunch times and I'll need to work extra then. If that's not acceptable, I probably am not the right candidate." Three years after that interview, and after two rounds of layoffs that hit my department, I too was laid off - but not because of my boundaries.

So set your boundaries, enforce them, and don't be afraid to call people out for crossing lines. Not every manager values the health of his or her people, and if they do not, the people must.

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Stephen Sadowski

Leader focusing on quality, delivery, technical debt management, and leadership education about DevOps and SRE practices