How To Work In An On-Call Job And Still Keep Your Sanity

How To Work In An On-Call Job And Still Keep Your Sanity

Being on call is a common challenge when you work in an IT role, but it doesn’t have to mean your friends and family must suffer along with you. The key is to draw clear lines between your “on” and “off” times, and manage coworker expectations for when you’re supposed to be available. Here’s how to turn that struggle for balance into an easily managed routine.

Summon Your Willpower


If being on call drives you crazy with buzzing phones and endless emails, you undoubtedly want to do something about it. We can offer tips to help you out, it’s not going to be easy. Part of the problem may be the habits and expectations you’ve set leading up to this point, which can be difficult to break. It will require willpower to stand behind your convictions, and not to let up and go back to your old routine. Photo by B Calkins (Shutterstock)

If your coworkers know they can email you in the middle of the night and get a response whether you’re on call or not, or text you on the weekend and get a call back, there will be a period of adjustment for everyone when you start defending your personal time. Similarly, if you’re on call, you’ll need to learn to walk the line between jumping when your inbox says jump and giving yourself a little freedom to take breaks and breathe. Once you commit and follow through, you’ll be much happier on the other side. Being on call won’t be quite as stressful, and your family and loved ones will thank you for not waking them in the middle of the night. Ready? Let’s get started.

Figure Out Where To Draw Your Boundaries


When you’re on call, your employer decides exactly how long your leash is. That doesn’t mean you can’t stretch it, or see what you can get away with while meeting your company’s expectations. A lot of this depends heavily on your workplace’s existing policies, but here are a few things to start with: Photo by imageegami (Shutterstock).

  • “On call” should not be the same as “working.” This is true for most companies, but if you get the feeling that in your job, being “on call” is the same as being “up all night waiting for something to happen so you may as well be working” you may need to have a chat with your manager. The point of “on call” work is, in most organisations, that there’s someone available to jump in and fix urgent problems after business hours — not that there’s someone working around the clock. Similarly, make sure you’re being paid appropriately for your on call and after-hours work. If you start racking up too many on call or overtime hours, odds are someone will sit up and take notice.
  • You’re allowed to disconnect sometimes, even when you’re on call. This is something I learned from my days as an on-call manager, and something I encouraged engineers I worked with to do as well. Even if you’re on call, that doesn’t mean you don’t get to spend time with your family, eat a dinner without interruptions, or at least put the phone down for a little while — just let your coworkers know when you’re doing it so they’re aware. Communicate with your team and tell them you’ll be offline for a half-hour or an hour while you sit down to dinner. If you can’t get away with shutting your phone off for that time, at least mention it and ask only to be called if there’s an emergency. Then follow-up at the end of your personal blackout period and make sure you didn’t miss anything.
  • You’re allowed to sleep. After a certain hour, email is no longer the best way to reach you, and if there’s an emergency, someone should pick up the phone and call you directly. This follows on from the “on call is not always-on,” principle, but it should be clear that there’s a point during your on call cycle where email or IM stops being the best way to reach you. This is especially important if you’re on call overnight; it’s not unreasonable to say “I’m going to bed, if something comes up, call me.”
  • You should have a clear procedure for when you’re contacted, and a proper hand-off when your on-call hours end. These kinds of policies sound tiresome, but they really serve two purposes: they protect you and your sanity, and they protect the efficiency of your team. Your customers, coworkers and managers should have clear guidelines defining what they should wake you up for versus problems that can wait until morning. Similarly, when your on-call shift is over, you should be able to easily and seamlessly hand-off to someone else without worrying that you have to “finish up this one thing” or that someone on the team doesn’t know you’re no longer on call. If these things aren’t clear on your team or at your company, talk to your boss and your colleagues. Your sanity is worth trying to improve them.
  • Fiercely defend your personal time. When you’re not on call, there should be no expectation that you’ll be available unless it suits you or there’s a real emergency. Most jobs, especially in technology or engineering, have some assumption that if your skills are required and it’s an emergency that you should be reachable somehow within reason, but “within reason” doesn’t mean “all the time”. Defend your personal time by avoiding your work email when you’re not on call, routing coworkers to voicemail when you need privacy, and turning off work-related alerts and notifications when you’re off duty. Remember that it’s not a huge leap from “I’ll just check my email before bed so I don’t have so much in the morning” to “everyone at work knows I stay up until 2am working and will happily exploit it.”

Most of these suggestions assume you work in an organisation where “on call” means that you can be contacted by someone else at any time to look into an issue, not that you’re expected to be up waiting for something to happen. At my last job, we had a network operations centre that was staffed 24/7, and the crew would contact on-call technicians and managers when they were needed. Of course, they would only call if the issue met our criteria for severity, and once the on-call staff were contacted, it set a chain of events into motion that would bring all the necessary people to the table to make sure the issue would be resolved as quickly as possible.

It was a good policy, but I’d worked at that job long enough to remember when “on call” was “okay it’s your turn to stay up late and make sure things don’t go down, respond to automated alerts pushed to your phone, and hope nothing happens when you try to sneak a few hours of sleep.” If that sounds like your workplace, don’t wait for someone else to fix it. Get together with your coworkers and your boss and shape it up yourself.

Use Technology To Reinforce Your Boundaries


The reason we advocate setting your boundaries so conservatively when it comes to your on and off time is because it’s easier to slip back into bad habits. Depending on your own self-control, you may be able to handle minor distractions or happily ignore emails and alerts knowing that if it’s really important someone will call you. Some of you will have trouble with that, so turning everything off is the best option. Decide which is best for you, and embrace the tools, apps and utilities that will help reinforce those boundaries.

Here are a few ways to reinforce your boundaries when you’re on call and when you’re off:

  • Make use of your phone’s do-not-disturb features. If you have an iPhone running iOS 6 or higher, you already have the tools for this. If you have an Android phone, you can set auto-responses or SMSes as a reply to unwanted phone calls, and apps such as previously mentioned Silence can use your Google Calendar to determine when to turn your ringer on and when to turn it off, or you can set it yourself. Want more control? We like Sanity, an app that lets you control who rings through, even when your phone is on vibrate or silent mode.
  • Scale back (or shut off) your work-related notifications. You probably use your smartphone to check your work-related email, or have work-related alerts pushed to your personal device. You may even use your home computer to check your work email. Try to keep those things separate if you can. For example, I use one mail client on my Windows PC for work and another for everything else. When I shut off my work computer and end my workday, I don’t want to even be tempted by my work inbox. If you can’t do this, at least set your polling time for notifications, new emails, and other alerts back as far as you can. If you’re on call and going home at night, every fifteen minutes to a half-hour is within reason, and won’t annoy your family with a constantly buzzing phone all through dinner or an email client beeping every two or three minutes with messages you know you don’t need to attend to. We have a complete guide to pruning your notifications on iOS and Android to get you started. If you still need more control, Pushover is an amazing webapp that offers all the control you’ll need.
  • Use mail filters and auto-responses as a first line of defense. If companies can do it, so can you. Canned responses to specific types of emails or specific people can be a lifesaver. A message such as “I’m out of the office now, but if it’s urgent contact me here” can go a long way towards changing a customer or coworker who emails on the weekend and expects a response into someone with clear expectations about when you’ll get back in touch with them. I’ve known many engineers who put up out-of-office messages when they go home at night, and others who use them whenever they know they’ll be out of touch — even if they’re not on call. “Going camping this weekend, so I won’t be looking at email. I’ll follow up with you on Monday, but if it’s urgent you can call me here”, for example. It may seem like a lot of information to give out, but if you’re on call, “Thanks for sending this to me, I’ll get back you in less than a half-hour” can make the difference between overwhelmed by emails and phone calls and everyone knowing their place in line.
  • Make heavy use of vibrate settings. Being on call doesn’t mean you have to wake up your family members when something at the office goes south. Sure, you could strap your phone to your arm and set it to vibrate, but there’s no reason to go that far. There’s a cottage industry of vibrating bracelets that go off silently when your phone rings. They’re perfect for getting calls and getting up in the middle of the night without waking anyone else. If you simply need to get up early to start an on call shift, or want to get up periodically to make sure everything is OK, use an alarm clock such as the previously mentioned LARK silent alarm to wake you without stirring your partner. If you have a fitness0 tracking gadget that also tracks sleep, like the Fitbit or other similar devices, most can wake you gently at the right time without waking up your whole house in the process

Don’t Deviate From Your Boundaries

Remember, you work to live, not live to work. Don’t be afraid to get away, and don’t be afraid to stick to your guns about the lines you draw between your personal and professional time. You’re also in for a fight: you’ll have coworkers who want their problems fixed right away, or who insist on your attention whenever they want it. You’ll have managers who’ll test those boundaries to see how far they can push you. Don’t get frustrated, just stick to your guns and set clear, open expectations about what your behaviour will be. Compromise when you have to.

When we talked about how to prioritise when everything is important, we explained that you can’t do this alone. You’ll need to build an understanding with your coworkers about how and when it’s appropriate to get in touch with you, even when you’re on call. The same applies to your family. You should also have an understanding with them that when you’re on call, it means you’ll be up at odd hours, you may have to go to the office on short notice, and sometimes you may have to miss dinner, or hole up in front of your computer working and shouldn’t be disturbed.

When everyone is on board and aware of how you work, being on call won’t be a struggle, it’ll just be another habit or routine to fall into. Just make sure that when it’s time to hang up your hat that you actually do it and mean it.


  • I love on call work so much now I don’t think I could return to a boring 48 week, 5 day, 9-5 schedule.

    I am set up to do 1 week in the office 9 to 5 and then a week 5-9 in which emails are not answered, only high severity calls. The Friday 5pm to Monday 9am are on call that week too. Then a week off.

    In the last 6 years I have not answered a call during toilet/shower breaks, voicemail is good enough for that task.

    I have taken calls during my meals, if it’s a high severity issue I tell them to wait 30 minutes, if it’s a critical severity issue my meal is broken.

    About 2 times a year disaster strikes and I get to work 30-35 hours without a break along with 200 to 300 other people to rectify a huge problem. When you have 300 people on an international conference call you cannot deal with your family, showers or very much private time.

    But for that little pain I get paid to sleep for a week, take a weeks holiday then work just 5 days.

    For anyone about to take this style of work up, the first few weeks sleeping with a phone is a pain, but after that it becomes second nature. There is huge value in having a wife/husband who sleeps well, 3am phone calls no longer wake mine.

    The SMS tone though. Make it loud, very loud. I have an angry bull who moos in disgust, softer SMS tones I slept through.

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