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30 Sep Posted by in Observations | 1 comment

I was intrigued and frankly astounded a week ago to read in the Post the report on many companies that are shutting down email systems at night and on weekends, to try to promote better, less work-haunted lifestyles and prevent burnout. It’s always intriguing to learn about concerns and systems so strikingly different from one’s own preferences.

But it’s a great topic. I believe deeply in principle in trying to protect balances in life between work and other things. I don’t like the phrasing that distinguishes between work and life: work is part of life, and a goal for all of us should be to make work a pleasant part of life and not something that needs to be constrained in the interests of real pleasures. Of course I know that in many situations work is not as pleasant as it should be (in some situations, “life” isn’t all that pleasant either; again, there need be no false dichotomies). So a discussion of protecting against too much work is not irrelevant.

I’m also always intrigued, as a historian, in trying to find the human content behind change. In this case: we all know that email is still a rather new system that contrasts markedly with the old world of telephoning and letter writing. Has it been a big change in the actual content of work, and work life, or is the change not, in fact, all that meaningful? And to the extent that it’s been a real change and not just a superficial new technology, has it made things worse or better?

So, for those like me who have lived through this transition, what’s the verdict? (Or more probably, what are the verdicts? I’m a pretty hopeless workaholic case, though with other interests and rewards as well, so my response may differ from those of others.)

I agree that email can be itself somewhat addictive. I admit that I sometimes sneak a look when I should be focusing entirely on other things, like a visit from the grandchildren. (It was less than two minutes and they were playing in the basement anyway, honest!)  I certainly agree that email allows me to alternate more often between work and other stuff than I could before – though this does not mean that the other stuff is getting short shrift. There are just more frequent, quick alternations to and fro.

I also acknowledge that occasionally email brings a nasty problem that I can’t shake off, a problem that might have waited for a half day or so – there are risks in reading email too late in the evening. This is to me the most serious, though sporadic, downside. There is another point – that some topics require person to person discussion rather than the inflexible phrasings of email – but that’s largely a different topic, akin to the older issue of when face to face takes priority over the telephone.

Mostly I find email helpful and interesting more than stressful, and I would even argue that compared to “back in the day” it offers several de-stressing advantages:

  1. Email’s better than phone calls for most purposes. I used to have to field a lot of work calls at home, and now I almost never do. Phone calls take longer, they allow less choice of the time selected, and I really find email here a preferable change.
  2. For me (again, a workaholic) email avoids nasty Monday morning buildups (or return-from-vacation buildups). I’d rather spend a bit of Sunday time on a few emails than wonder what mass of misery might await the following day. Returns from a holiday are immensely less stressful than they used to be.
  3. The pleasure of deletion. Most emails take very little time – they have encouraged compression, save for a few misbegotten colleagues. Many emails, in fact, are irrelevant, or involve one of those endless “reply all” distractions, and allow a sense of progress through life through their rapid elimination.

So my personal historical verdict: emails have changed things a bit, though they did not create the problem of work-life overlap. I don’t find their impact on my life revolutionary, but I do grant some changes. On balance, obviously, I think the changes are mostly “good things”. And I would really resent being part of some paternalistic corporate structure that, with whatever good intentions, tried to regulate my choices about work and non-work alternations – they should strive for more meaningful work instead. That’s just my take, and I would be interested in others’ personal and historical evaluations. Please send them surface mail.