Setting Email Boundaries When You’re Off the Clock

Q: Do you have suggestions for setting up relationships with your clients where they respect your working hours? I understand the occasional genuine emergency, but expectations for replies on nights, weekends or on my personal cell for regular tasks or client-created fires seems excessive. I want to appear helpful, prompt and engaged with my clients, but I can’t afford to work 50-60 hours a week because of a lack of time boundaries. So, what can I do?

A: First, a simple and practical option is to use your out-of-office function on your email system. Before leaving the office each Friday, for example, set up the function to say, “I’m currently out of the office until Monday MM-DD and have limited and delayed access to email. If your request is urgent, please contact my work cell at xxx-xxx-xxxx. Alternatively, I will respond to your message Monday by noon.”

I like using this function, as I’ve found it to be a clear way of managing expectations with clients and colleagues. By getting the automatic response, the client knows that not only have you received the email, but it outlines clearly when you’ll be available and when they can expect you to respond. You’re also giving them an alternative way of reaching you if the matter is, in fact, urgent.

Next, if you want to go a little deeper into the topic of boundary setting, then take a moment to check what’s going on inside of you. I hear you have judgments about the clients and their lack of respect for time boundaries, which I agree can be legitimately frustrating, but what judgments might you have about yourself for either not responding in a timely manner or not wanting to respond at all? Beneath the judgment, there’s often a voice of guilt. Scratching the surface even further can expose feelings of unworthiness. Depending upon the family or the cultural unit you grew up in, you may not have had much opportunity at setting functional boundaries or even know you have the right to set healthy boundaries.

A book that helped me enormously in understanding functional external and internal boundaries is “Facing Codependence” by Pia Mellody. This is one of my go-to books for both me and my clients. Reading “Facing Codependence,” along with the subsequent training I’ve done with Pia Mellody, has helped me understand my own internal and external boundaries. In any relationship, you have the right to set an appropriate boundary — which includes saying no.

Pia writes, “Boundary systems are invisible and symbolic “force fields” that have three purposes: (1) to keep people from coming into our space and abusing us, (2) to keep us from going into the space of others and abusing them, and (3) to give each of us a way to embody our sense of ‘who we are.’”

I’ve found that, over time, many of us have forgotten our inherent worth as a human being. Instead, we value ourselves on our strengths and weaknesses and on what we do and not who we are. And I often see women, in particular, playing the “good girl” role; craving positive external approval for being seen doing the “right thing” (irrespective of whether it’s for our highest good). Perhaps this is something for you to consider, given you write, “I want to appear helpful, prompt and engaged with my clients.” Take a moment to consider if your internal conflict — and payback — is an unconscious desire to be seen as the “good girl.”

As a next step, set up your out-of-office response and take some time to observe how you feel when you do set a work boundary with a client. Does it feel uncomfortable or perhaps a little scary to not respond immediately? Jot down on paper what you’re observing about yourself. If you take the principal that the outside is a reflection of what’s going on inside, you may unconsciously be giving off a message of the “good girl;” wanting to be seen to be doing the right thing and seeking the clients’ approval. If this is the case, this could be contributing to why they’ve been overriding the boundary of reaching out during reasonable office hours.

I love your question, by the way. It highlights an everyday issue that affects so many people. Setting appropriate boundaries is a life skill and it impacts all relationships — not only at work. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has a good handle on this all of the time, including me. If you can get used to setting healthy boundaries at work where you seek external approval less often and have come to understand the source of any guilt/sense of unworthiness, then this will help tremendously in all other relationships — including ones with your spouse, parents, children, friends and so on.

In closing, I want to let you know I support you in setting healthy work boundaries. If a 50- to 60-hour work week is not appropriate in your industry and you’re not on emergency call, then start with the out-of-office and see how things go. And if clients continue to call on weekends or evenings, let it go to voicemail. If it’s urgent, you can call back, but if not, you can respond the next business day.

[Editor's Note: Have a question YOU would like to ask Julie-Ann? Email your questions to or tweet us @iwantherjob using #AskJulieAnn.]