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Checking out, not in, can be good

December 04, 2005|By KIMBERLY DURNAN

DALLAS - The holidays are supposed to give workers a break.

So why do so many employees open e-mail with their presents? They check gift lists and office voice mails. And they dabble in eggnog and in spreadsheets, all while they're supposedly on vacation.

Take, for example, Jeff Chadwick, who enjoys using his hard-earned vacation days but is unlikely to unplug from his many responsibilities.

During a trip to Disney World, while his wife and children slept, the Carrollton, Texas, accountant logged on at 4 a.m. several times to slip in some work at his job at KPMG back in Dallas.

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"I could do what I needed to do while my wife and kids were sleeping and then we would go out and play," Chadwick said.

As technology improves, more people find it difficult to disconnect from the office when they are on holiday, said Amy Ziff, editor-at-large for Travelocity.

"Technology has become such an integral part of travelers' lives that many of us find it impossible to completely unplug," she said. "This is an astonishing trend that demonstrates a change in how we vacation."

A poll released this year by Travelocity estimates that 40 percent of travelers check their work e-mail while on vacation and 33 percent take their mobile phones to stay connected with their employers, employees or clients. One person in every four admitted to taking a laptop on vacation.

One in three workers claimed that not checking in by cell phone, laptop or PDA was more stressful than the actual work.

"I feel like I have to," said A. Michelle May, a Dallas attorney. "My clients are my responsibility. I wouldn't like it if my attorney checked out on me. I need to be available in case something happens."

May says she opens her e-mail a few times a day and calls work at least once daily while vacationing.

May's employees insist they can handle the workload while she's gone and encourage their boss to unwind and enjoy her time off. But it's difficult to not take a quick look, May says, when the hotel has free Internet stations available.

"I had made an agreement with my assistant that I wasn't going to call in and promised they wouldn't hear from me, but I couldn't stand it," May said. "I had to follow up on some of the things in the e-mail."

The travel industry has fed on its customers' impulses to stay connected to the office while vacationing. Hotels, resorts, airlines and cruise lines have made it easier for customers to mix business with pleasure.

Travelers booking ocean cruises or trips to Europe often ask about Internet and cell phone connections, said Bill Creasey of Marilyn Creasey Luxury Travel Inc. of Dallas.

International cell phones make overseas connection easier and most major international hotels have business centers with Internet access, Creasey said.

"It enables more people to take off so they can travel the world and stay in touch," he said.

Travel columnist Eileen Ogintz suggests setting limits on electronic usage while on vacation.

Often, children will play electronic games or listen to music while their parents work on a laptop, cutting into the benefits of getting away and spending time together, Ogintz said.

"Clearly, it's harder and harder for everyone to totally unplug on vacation, especially when the travel industry makes it so easy to stay connected wherever you are," Ogintz said. "But there's nothing wrong with setting some limits. ... The point of vacation, after all, is to reconnect."

Veteran e-mail checker Billy Tseng said he stayed plugged in to work during his honeymoon to keep up with his boss at Hansol Technologies in Plano, Texas. And nobody wants to be labeled the office slacker, he said.

"It's a bad thing, but you have to do what you have to do," he said. "My boss does it, so I feel like I should, too. He's setting the example, so I try to do it as much as I can. Plus, I don't want stuff to pile up and come back to 10,000 e-mails."

Tseng's reasoning is familiar.

Downsizing and mergers have resulted in a heavier workload for the survivors. And employees are worried that they may be cut next unless they perform above and beyond the call of duty, said Bonnie Michaels, a consultant for Managing Work & Family Inc. in Chicago.

Employees who check e-mails and call into work while vacationing may feel more in control of their career, she said, but it's not healthy.

"Your brain doesn't have a chance to relax and get nurtured again," Michaels said. "I think people generally have forgotten how to play, to let go and do nothing, be spontaneous. Part of vacation is that you will come back refreshed with new ideas."

But some of that philosophy might be infiltrating the youngest generation in the work force.

"Generation Y will work hard, but they want to know they don't have to stay at the office for face time," Michaels said. "They will say, 'I'll do my work but then at 5 o'clock, I'm going to ride my bike.'"

Maureen Wilt, who teaches sociology at Central Missouri State University and is part of a national take-back-your-time group, suggests that keeping unplanned time in your vacation schedule is a good idea.

"Sometimes people don't get it because it's all they've ever known - to be constantly on the go," she said. "How do we measure wealth in our country? Is it by relationships and family?"

Checking e-mail during vacation time isn't always about work. The Travelocity survey found that at least 60 percent of vacationers check personal e-mail.

Even at Disney World, Chadwick felt compelled to stay on top of his volunteer duties as a youth soccer coach and at church.

But he felt the most obligated to ensure he got some work done so he wouldn't have to scale a mountain of tasks when he returned.

"We are fortunate to have the holidays we have and the benefits our companies give us," he said. "Back in the agriculture days, you didn't get a day off from work. It's just a balance."

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