Thursday, September 15, 2011

Unplugged at last

With the majority of summer tans now less deep mahogany as peeling like a Minnesota blizzard, What Would David Bowie Do? has finally down-tooled, thrown a selection of tastefully decorated Tommy Bahama shirts into a bag and jetted away for its first proper break of 2011.

In so doing, colleagues have been left behind still trying to get on top of the e-mail deluge that mounted, like pizza delivery leaflets behind the front door, during the Great August Exodus, when the office made the Marie Celeste look like Oxford Street on Christmas Eve.

As I sink the first of many cold ones to toast Brer Rest and Brer Relaxation, I'll be counting on the goodwill of others to ensure my week-long sojourn is uninterrupted by the expectations placed upon the modern worker bee. In particular, I hope the Out-of-Office notification is actually heeded, and I don't receive any of those "I know you're on holiday, but I just wanted to grab a couple of minutes of your time" phone calls that beggar belief at their downright ill-consideration.

The nerve of these calls notwithstanding, it is, sadly, a facet of modern working life that, thanks to the electronic age, time off is rarely that. More than a third of us now have a smartphone with ownership rising at a phenomenal rate. But in these uncertain and insecure times, taking time out to recharge the batteries is regarded by some as high risk, and by others - clearly on the extreme edge of rational thought - an act of professional perversion worthy of the white feather of conscientious objection.

As each summer in our 24/7-connected world comes along, more and more workers are taking to their holiday sun loungers with paperback, Factor 50 and a BlackBerry. Worse still are those who take their company laptops with them. I've even been on conference calls where the sound of crashing waves and partners complaining about sand in awkward places can be heard in the background.

Can we, today, realistically switch off completely while on holiday? Some manage just fine. Others struggle to make the transition between replacing the proverbial bowler hat and umbrella with the four-pointed handkerchief. Some find a system ("I'll check my e-mail once a day while the wife takes a shower and then I'm done"). Others don't, judging by the frequency throughout the working day with which I received e-mails in August from people who were meant to be amid their kith and kin on a beach.

There was a time when going on holiday meant queuing up to use a public pay phone if you had any reason to connect with home, office or both. Now we don't even send postcards - we have the tools at our disposal. It's our own fault.

Or is it. A study earlier this year by Virgin Atlantic found that a quarter of bosses thought it was acceptable to call an employee while they were on holiday. Worse, 14 per cent of employers have even telephoned minions to reprimand them during their holiday! Choosing exotic timezones for a holiday might thwart managers (though not all) ringing up in the middle of the night, but the study found that Europeans choosing a European destination for a holiday dramatically increased the chances of a boss calling on the grounds that they were 'only' in Europe.

If you're self-employed, an eminent heart surgeon or Prime Minister of a country suddenly overun by hooded youths torching shops and stealing sportswear, then the interrupted holiday comes with the territory. The poor old US President can't travel anywhere without a Navy officer standing behind him carrying 'The Football', the briefcase containing the codes to start nuclear war. For everyone else, nearly a quarter of adults don't think they're paid enough to warrant employers calling up during their holiday, even if possession of a company-supplied mobile phone gave greater justification for doing so.

Technology is to blame. It's not just the fact that digital umbilical cords like the BlackBerry make it easier to stay on top of work - for some it's just a force of habit. We Brits, apparently will check our mobile phone for e-mail messages up to 12 times a day while on holiday and, over the course of a two-week holiday, send as many as nine e-mails or text messages.

For Americans, who typically only get a couple of weeks off a year, giving up precious holiday time to deal with the office carries greater risks than just a ticking off from the significant other. Studies several years ago found that Americans who didn't take holidays stood a higher chance of developing heart disease, and the risk of a heart attack increased by a third. Spending your holiday at the bottom of a beer glass, of course, may not exactly reduce the chance of a major cardiovascular episode, but taking a week or two off is, most therapists agree, as beneficial as ensuring eight hours' uninterrupted sleep every night.

So, while it's impossible to completely drown out the cacophonous soundtrack created by the electronic noise of modern life, it may be better to get stressed out by not answering the phone when the boss dials up during your holiday, than accepting the call. After all, there's an off-switch on your phone for a reason.

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