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Jack Knox column: Line between work and play as thin as a smartphone

Sep 02 2012

I'm wearing long pants this week. Wearing an even longer face.

Didn't just drive today, but commuted. Found condensation on the car window, too. It was dark when I got up, both outside the house and in my heart.

Vacation is over. Summer is over. Not officially, of course, but we all know the corner has been turned when they start stuffing kids in school buses, hogs to the slaughterhouse.

Good lord, where did holiday season go? One minute you're enjoying the Fringe Festival, watching Prince Harry's one-man production of Fifty Shades of Grey, and the next you're stuck in traffic, watching your fellow commuters feverishly texting at the stoplights.

(Either that, or Victoria drivers have an unhealthy fascination with their own crotches.) Heaven forbid that we should remain disconnected all the way from home to work. Heaven forbid that we should loosen our grip on our smartphones, ever.

I tried - really, really tried - to stay away from office email during my time off. Went long stretches without checking in.

Kept worrying that I was missing something, though (which is the same reason you should never give a guy the TV remote). Also kept worrying about the avalanche of mail that would bury me if I didn't trigger the occasional pre-emptive slide. The idea of being crushed to death by an inbox full of other people's problems was too ghastly to contemplate. ("What fresh hell is this," writer Dorothy Parker would demand when her telephone rang; you can apply that to the arrival of email now.)

So, I started calling up my messages now and then.

"Just in case there's an emergency," I explained, earning a certain amount of eye-rolling in response.

OK, there were no real crises, but I still started ducking in to weed out the junk - the Nigerian scams, the get-rich schemes, anything from the prime minister's office.

"You're addicted to that thing," I was told while thumbing the BlackBerry.

"I can stop whenever I want," I replied. But to avoid the hassle, I began emailing when she wasn't looking - late at night, say, when everyone else was distracted by a meteor shower or the Second Coming of Christ.

Once, she caught me surreptitiously checking out press releases behind the cover a pornographic magazine. "You better not have your phone under there," she said.

"No," I lied. "I'm smoking crack."

The thing is, this is common. Studies show a ridiculously high percentage of people can't cut the cord between work and holiday, between vocation and vacation. A Harris poll released in July found 52 per cent of employed Americans planned to do work while on summer leave. One in three expected to answer email, while one in four anticipated fielding phone calls. While employers take the blame for forcing their staff to remain connected, it's often the employees who refuse to let go.

The phenomenon has grown with the proliferation of smartphones. In the olden days, the morning queue of vacationers lining up for the guest computers at holiday resorts looked like TripAdvisor's version of the Downtown Eastside, junkies jonesing for a fix.

Now everyone is by the pool, a margarita in one hand, an iPhone in the other. We know this is not good for us, but if we only chose what was good for us, the cigarette companies would be bankrupt, spinach would sell for $45 a kilo and George W. Bush would still be running a baseball team.

Enough. Next time you go on vacation, leave your work at home.

In fact, you might not even want to wait that long: it has been suggested that a vacation from email might be a good idea not only while on holiday but, occasionally, while at work. A recent study by the U.S. army and the University of California Irvine monitored staff in a suburban Boston office. Those who were cut off from their email for five days had much healthier heart rates than those who remained connected. The latter group were constantly distracted, toggling between computer windows an average of 37 times an hour. Perhaps they were just checking out vacation sites, looking for a place to get away from it all.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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