From coworker friend requests to Sunday morning emails, the experts offer etiquette techniques and a few personal pep talks to help you leave work at work (as often as possible).

By Sara Morrow and Maggie Seaver
Updated August 02, 2019
Utamaru Kido/Getty Images

Remember when work life and personal life could be totally separate? When professionals could safely leave their spreadsheets and email inboxes at the office each night and go home to open a bottle of wine and unwind? Remember boundaries? Barely, probably.

Sometimes you have to finish something up on the couch later or tie up loose ends on the train ride home, but for the most part, it’s vital to your mental health and happiness to create some boundaries between your job and your “you” time (read: everything else). We turned to the experts with five common scenarios to learn if, when, and how to separate work from much-needed downtime—especially in an always-on world.

Scenario #1: Your boss bombards you with emails in the middle of the night or over the weekend.

If you look at your inbox on a Sunday, “work isn’t encroaching on your personal life—you’re inviting work into your personal life,” says Maura Thomas, a productivity expert and author of Personal Productivity Secrets. But considering your boss’s habit, shift your schedule. “Set your alarm 20 minutes earlier on Monday morning so you can check your email first thing and reply,” says Beverly Langford, the author of The Etiquette Edge: Modern Manners for Business Success. This way, when you arrive at the office, you’re all caught up. And if you think she’s waiting for your feedback on Sunday night? Thomas says she’s probably not: “CEO clients say they often send out notes when a thought comes to them. They absolutely don’t expect a response in that moment.”

Scenario #2: A coworker requests you on social media—and you'd rather not go there.

“If an associate sends me a friend request,” says Langford, “I’ll decline but write her a personal message on LinkedIn, explaining that I prefer to keep my connections organized this way.” If that won’t cut it, use privacy settings to create a custom list for coworkers, clients, and industry contacts, says Alison Green, a coauthor of Managing to Change the World. There’s a third option, too: “Do nothing,” says Diane Gottsman, the founder of the Protocol School of Texas; the person may not even notice.

Scenario #3 :Your company asks staffers to post on social media about work news.

If this is only an occasional request, you can try keeping your head down and saying that you are not active on social media (assuming that your privacy settings are in effect). If this is more of a regular policy, have a conversation with your boss. Gottsman says to “explain that you prefer to keep your personal accounts personal, and gauge her reaction.” It could be that this doesn’t matter all that much to her. If she conveys she does care, though, suck it up and post.

Scenario #4: Everybody in the office follows each another on their personal social accounts. But you're a manager and aren’t sure you should follow suit.

“When you have to stop and wonder whether something is appropriate— especially in the tricky world of social media—the answer is probably no,” Gottsman says. It’s fine if underlings choose to follow your feed, as long as you don’t mind, but don’t reciprocate. “You don’t want your employees to feel like they can’t be themselves because you’re watching,” she says.

Scenario #5: You're going on vacation and tried to be clear you'll be unreachable—but your boss just assumes you’ll be in touch.

If the vacation is approved, the assumption is that others have taken similarly lengthy breaks. These coworkers are your experts on how to handle communication while away. “It’s unrealistic, in my opinion, to think that you can leave for several weeks and have zero contact with your office,” says Langford. “Instead, create a plan that allows limited interaction.” The degree to which you’re in touch will depend on the culture of your workplace. Run your plan by your boss—whether it’s checking email once in the morning and once in the evening or being off the grid for a stretch, then calling in. Convey that you’re reachable for emergencies but that you’re hoping mostly to unplug.

  • By Sara Morrow
  • By Maggie Seaver