Seeking a balance

Brian Ludmer, a partner at Ogilvy Renault in Toronto and a busy mergers and acquisitions lawyer, admits he sometimes takes his Blackberry with him up the slopes when he goes skiing. Ludmer takes the PDA to his son’s hockey games too — though he turns it off when the boy is actually on the ice. He

also carries a cell phone almost everywhere. “”I have a life,”” Ludmer says, “”but the reality is I also serve my clients and I have to make myself available to associates.””

Is he crazy? Maybe a little, but hardly out of the ordinary. Using technology to stay in touch when you’re away from the office, even when supposedly on vacation, is the norm among senior-level white collar workers now.

Take the mayor of Markham, Ont., Don Cousens, a former Honeywell executive. Cousens recently went on a 40th anniversary vacation trip with his wife. He called in to retrieve his voice mail messages every couple of days while he was away. He also regularly checks e-mail on his Blackberry on weekends and in the evening.

“”I think she accepts that it kind of goes with the territory,”” Cousens says of his wife’s response to the mayor’s always-connected life.

At an IT conference in Florida earlier this year, phone system vendor Avaya Corp. asked 300 attendees about how technology effects the balance between work

and personal life. Among other findings, 85 per cent said they preferred to be accessible to colleagues at night, on weekends and even when on vacation. More than 75 per cent said they routinely check e-mail and/or voice mail while vacationing.

Can this be a good thing? It depends whom you ask. If you’re an employer and the technology lets your people work, or at least be available, 24/7, you might think it’s a great idea. If you’re a wage slave who can never get a moment’s peace for the cell phone ringing, you might feel differently. It’s not really that simple, though, says Wendy Cukier, a professor of information technology management and the associate dean of the Business School at Ryerson University in Toronto. Communication addicts like Ludmer and Cousens may insist that staying connected reduces stress, but a lot of current research indicates otherwise, and that should be of real concern to employers, she says.

Cukier, an admitted recovering workaholic who decides which hotels to book for European vacations based on whether or not they offer high-speed Internet access, is interested in the role technology plays in the balance between work and personal life in part because of her own struggles to change her work and leisure habits. But it also bears on her main academic interest — cost benefit analyses in information technology and the age-old gap between hype and reality.

One of Cukier’s particular interests is the way companies frequently overlook unintended negative consequences of introducing new technologies when calculating return on investment — consequences such as the impact of people never being able to be truly off work because they now have the technological means to stay connected.

“”Research shows that if people don’t have proper vacations, they’re more likely to get sick and take time off,”” Cukier says. “”Even if you’re not actually getting emergency phone calls or messages that require you to act immediately, just being online and on-call has a negative impact on stress levels. It puts you in a sort of heightened state of anxiety.””

Vacation time

In one study, 12,000 men at high risk for heart attack were asked every year for five years whether they had taken a vacation — a proper vacation. The results, published in Psychosomatic Medicine a few years ago, showed that the more often subjects answered yes, the less likely they were to die of any cause, especially heart disease, in the nine years following the study.

Why? Brooks Gump, an assistant professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Oswego and the lead researcher on the study, speculates that it’s exactly as you might think — vacations simply give people time to de-stress. Gump has suggested it’s impossible to entirely de-stress if you’re toting a laptop or a Blackberry, or calling the office every day to collect messages.

More recently, Tracy Hecht, an assistant professor in the department of management at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business in Montreal, asked survey participants about the “”permeability”” of boundaries between their work and personal lives.

“”What we found is that people who have weak boundaries — both in the sense of bringing work home or bringing their personal life into the office — those people reported higher levels of family conflict and than people with stronger boundaries,”” Hecht says. Would the results have been different 20 years ago, before the advent of cell phones and e-mail and the spread of voice mail? Hecht says it’s a given that new communications technologies increase permeability.

Yet Ludmer insists that for him, the technology is what allows him to have a personal life at all. It’s not just the Blackberry and cell phone. He also subscribes to a service that sends e-mail to his Blackberry whenever he receives voice mail on his office phone line. And he subscribes to Rogers’ fastest Internet access service at home and frequently logs in to his work computer from home through a virtual private network.

“”It means if a meeting or a family event takes me up town near the end of the day, I don’t have to go back to the office now because I know I can connect at home and it’s like I’m there [in the office],”” Ludmer says. Keeping a constant check on e-mail using his Blackberry actually reduces stress because it means he knows everything is under control and he can relax, he says. And all it takes is a quick glance at the screen to see if new messages have arrived. Then his mind “”snaps back”” to whatever he was doing. “”I’ll tell you that I couldn’t be as involved in my kids’ activities as I have been without these devices,”” Ludmer says.

Workaholism

Even if he does get a panicked message from a client over the weekend, it rarely means having to rush back to the office from whatever he’s doing. Usually a few quick calls or e-mails to tee up activities on Monday are all it takes to deal with the situation. “”I know other people think about this differently,”” Ludmer says. “”But for me it works.””

Cukier isn’t buying. “”I think workaholism is a serious psychological and health problem with many of the same manifestations as other kinds of addiction,”” she says. “”People thinking they’re indispensable is tied to high self-esteem and egoism.”” Cukier admits she’s having difficulty giving up her workaholic ways. She knows it can be done, though, because she’s seen others close to her do it. And in other cultures — Quebec’s, for example, and in most of Europe — there is a markedly different attitude toward work-life balance. People expect to work fewer hours and get more vacation time. And that’s a healthy thing, Cukier says.

“”The importance we ascribe to work-related things in our culture is very high,”” she says, “”often too high. I think some of us prioritize it over and above other things in life that should be a lot more important.””

Amen to that. Now excuse me while I check my e-mail.

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