It's a Living

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October 8, 2002 // UPDATED 1:31 pm - April 30, 2007
By: By Elana Centor
By Elana Centor</I>

If you're doing work while you're on vacation, are you really on vacation?

Sitting across the kitchen table on one of the rare occasions that my college-bound son, Noah, and I shared dinner last summer, I attempted to jump start our conversation by asking this very compelling question: " So, have you had a good summer?"

To which Noah replied, "Not really. I didn't get to go on a real vacation. I didn't go to Europe, Colorado, or anywhere."

To which I replied, "But you were just in the Dominican Republic in April for your Spring Break."

To which he replied, "That was four months ago! I wanted to go on a real vacation before I leave for college. It's going to be stressful."

(I fondly think of college as a four-year vacation, but decided not to go there.)

Noah's days of real vacations may be numbered; it seems that once he enters the workforce, he may never take a real vacation again -- that is, if your definition of a real vacation is time away from the stress, pressure and decision-making activities associated with being at work.

You think I'm kidding? According to American Demographics Magazine, nearly 50 percent of all workers voluntarily check in with their office via voicemail and/or e-mail while they're on vacation. Another 70 percent expect that their office may need to contact them.

Which begs the question, if you're doing work while you're on vacation, are you really on vacation?

Evidently, my definition of a vacation is archaic or, worse yet, a fantasy. As much as we might like to think sacrificing vacation time for work time is a phenomenon of increased competition, downsizing and technological addiction, historian Cindy S. Aaron disagrees.

According to Aaron, author of "Working at Play," Americans have always had a hard time being away from work. "It stems from our 19th-century middle class values of discipline, sobriety and hard work. Going on vacation challenges all those values. Americans are suspicious of leisure."

Evidently, those values have stuck. People not only check in with the office while they are vacationing, they tell me they don't resent it, even though they admit it reduces the quality of their vacation. Could it be that checking e-mail and voicemail has become a recreational activity?

For Dan, a local lawyer, and his wife Shelly, their first trip to Italy promised 17 glorious days to relax, to take in the major sights: The Coliseum, Michelangelo's Pieta, the Venice canals -- and of course, the cyber cafs.

"It didn't bother you that you had to interrupt your vacation to check your e-mail?" I asked.

"Not at all; it's part and parcel of being a lawyer," said Dan.

"Well, if it didn't bother you, how did your wife feel about it?" I asked.

"Now that you mention it, I was on the phone with my partner one evening when we were in Rome, and Shelly and I were supposed to be going to dinner. I guess the conversation was taking too long, so Shelly finally took the phone away and said to my partner, 'David, he'll call you in the morning.' All in all, over the 17 days, I only spent three hours on the phone," said Dan.

Others haven't been so lucky. Terri remembers one vacation when she had a crisis with an important client and had to jump in and solve the issue. According to Terri, "I ruined it for those I was vacationing with, too, because it drew them back into reality versus the fun of vacation."

And then there's Jeff. On one of his beach vacations, he spent the better part of the day listening and responding to voicemails. To make matters worse, it was in the days before cell phones, and so every time he needed to check in, he had to hike 10 minutes to get to the phone booth.

"The first time I checked I had six voicemails. A couple of hours later, I had seven messages. By the end of the day, I had responded to 35 voicemails."

Doesn't sound like a day at the beach to me. But after talking with historian Aaron, I realize answering e-mails and checking voicemails meets a very ingrained need in many of us.We like our work. We like feeling needed at work. We like feeling like we're doing a good job --24/7. We like doing work while we're at play. We really, really like it.

If you have a workplace dilemma or just a good story to tell, please contact Elana Centor at You can remain confidential, as can your company.