One much-discussed “bad stress generator” of today’s working world is concern about overworking, exemplified by sending messages outside “normal” working hours.
The assumption is that by communicating “out of hours” we expect an immediate response and thus create potential stress for the recipient — such as the expectation that employees should always be online.
One often proposed solution is using an “out of office” or OOO message. But this is one tool I believe we need to stop using.
Despite what we may think, some implied need to respond to messages immediately really doesn’t exist. Understanding this — and getting comfortable with managing stressors like these — is key for entrepreneurs to become true leaders.
Life before OOO
I speak as someone who can remember life before email and hence before the pesky OOO auto-response became part of our life.
Pre-email we assumed that everyone would realise that if a letter or fax was sent to the office at the weekend, over Christmas or during the summer vacation period (or trades holidays as it was then) that no response should be expected. If there was something of real importance requiring to be dealt with a call would be made to your home landline. However, this really would be only in a life-and-death situation.
I've used this same logic with my email management today. I did not set an OOO auto response over Christmas but neither do I check or feel the need to respond to incoming emails in real time — I'll simply pick them up when I feel ready. That might well be after seven days, might be longer.
And I must share a truth with those who spend their time carefully crafting an OOO message. No one reads them, they clog up our inboxes and many people set up a filter to send them straight to the trash.
How (and how not) to run a startup.
Set an expectation for how you will communicate
But the OOO message is just one piece of how having clear policies about communication can help relieve the stress of you and your team. Today we entrepreneurs understand that managing our own mental health and ensuring we are not negatively affecting others is a responsibility we all carry.
For everything else, I will respond in my own time having given due consideration to how my response will assist
One glance at my phone reveals I utilise an ever-growing selection of tools from messaging apps, WhatsApp, Line, WeChat, Signal, to project management and CRM tools — and of course email. Each comes with the “useful” feature of an aural or visual alert to ensure I never miss anything.
My advice is always to switch off these alerts and to explain to those I work with that if they require my attention immediately that they should call or text me. For everything else, I will respond in my own time having given due consideration to how my response will assist.
Of course, my seniority (soon to be 60) may put me in a privileged position where I can take this approach. However, never underestimate anything that could have a negative effect on your physical or mental health — or that of your team. That is way more important than succeeding as an entrepreneur.
Mastering good stress and bad stress is key to becoming a leader
OOO messages and communications strategies might seem like trivial topics to focus on. But entrepreneurs must learn to set boundaries and manages these daily stresses if they want to lead an organisation effectively.
Stress is by definition part of the entrepreneurial journey. Founders like myself and those I support have chosen a high-pressure existence as their preferred route to deliver on their vision. There is, of course, good and bad stress. Good stress describes the energy which allows me to finish that proposal or tender response in the early hours of the morning. Bad stress is when worry and fear cloud my judgement and deprive me of sleep — it’s the stress founders and their teams experience when they feel like they have to reply to that email at midnight.
Accepting that bad stress stemmed from trying to control the impossible was a real transformational moment for me
But that bad stress is typically linked to trying to manage things out of your control. You can control when you choose to respond to an email. You can’t control how someone else responds.
Accepting that bad stress stemmed from trying to control the impossible was a real transformational moment for me, and I understand today that focusing on things I can control and taking the rest as it comes was critical in my move from manager to leader.
The “instant response” culture we have adopted is actually creating more bad stress for us all. If we can break free from these mistaken assumptions, perhaps we can make the life of our fellow entrepreneur just that little bit easier.
Russell Dalgleish is a Scottish serial entrepreneur.