Driving through Brooklyn, on the scenic route home from vacation in New England, I felt my foot start shaking. I picked up a notebook and made a list. E-mail, voice mail, meetings, interviews, write. So much to do after taking off just one week from work.
Raise your hand if you feel like you need a vacation when you return from vacation.
What have we done to ourselves? So many times now, we come back from a possibly relaxing break on the beach only to dig through scads of e-mail, phone messages and meeting requests. Those of us who used a BlackBerry or cyber cafe to avoid that avalanche, well, what kind of a vacation is it if we're still working?
I took last week off. But only after I wrote an advance column that would run while I was away. I finished as much as I could before I left, then bolted for a whirlwind week that included a family wedding, a couple of days with parents, a Yankees game, a couple of days of solitude with my husband, and two with a friend who just had a baby.
I'm panting just thinking about it.
My husband and I came home Saturday night so we could have a day to relax before we faced the office. But I was so wound up about what I had missed and how much work was waiting for me that I used the one perfect summer D.C. Sunday to sit at my desk and wade through well over 100 e-mails. One of them was like looking in the mirror:
"Vacations are their own punishment, for all the crap you have to dig out from under upon your return," wrote one reader of this column. "All of us are returning to mountains of e-mail, unless you bring your laptop or BlackBerry on vacation with you (I brought my B'berry, God help me), which is punishment of its own."
How was it that our parents always seemed to be able to cancel the newspaper, have the post office hold the mail, then pile into the station wagon for a week-long trip that included no calls to the office, and no worries about what would be waiting for them upon return?
Of course, there was no technological umbilical cord then, and that left people free to run off to the Jersey shore and really be gone from work, and mostly gone from thinking about work. My father's idea of a vacation was sitting and staring at the water. With a little bit of novel-reading or crossword-puzzling thrown in. But today, I perk up when I see a cyber cafe in the middle of no-man's land.
That is because the boundaries between life and work are fast disappearing.
"There used to be something called the workday, with a real beginning and end," said Baird K. Brightman, president of Worklife Strategies in Sudbury, Mass. "That's so 20th century."
I'm always surprised (as a reporter, pleasantly surprised) when people return my calls despite the fact their voice mail says they are on vacation. Or when people answer e-mails, even though I got a notice they are out of the office. That is yet another thing that has changed. "The world's expectation is that you are always there, always working," Brightman said.
The other reason people don't truly go on vacation these days is because the economy is still dragging, which makes people feel like a week out of the office could somehow put them on top of the list to be fired. The economy is "not that consistent to make people feel they are out of the woods somehow. . . . There's still a lot of uncertainty out there in people's lives," said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based outplacement firm. So because of that feeling, many people don't actually leave work when they take off for the beach. "A lot of people are just more attuned to what's going on at work while they're gone. That's the compromise people make."
It is harder for us to get into the actual vacation part of vacation when we leave the office as well. Lots of people spend the first half of their vacations just trying to get work out of their minds. "When they take a vacation, they feel cheated out of half their vacation because they're still dreaming about work, obsessing about work," Brightman said. And then by the time it starts to soak in that you are on a vacation, it's time to check that e-mail. Or return to work, where everyone else's job has continued on while you sat. So they want you to get back to them, like, yesterday.
If you don't check in or dig through e-mail between lunch at Moby Dick's and dinner at Chez Seaside, you'll end up the way Challenger did, after he returned from a two-week vacation on Monday: He had 360 e-mails waiting. At lunchtime Monday, when we chatted, he was still wading through them. By afternoon, I would bet he didn't feel so refreshed from that relaxing break in Upstate New York anymore.
But then again, if you just decide you don't want to be a part of this need for a vacation from taking a vacation, maybe you could just not be a part of it. The person who e-mailed me also mentioned that a professor at the Wharton School seminar he attended in May challenged the class to delete every e-mail when they returned. Just delete it. So he did.
Guess what? He still has a job.
Join Amy on Tuesday from 11 to noon at www.washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her with your thoughts about work and life at firstname.lastname@example.org.