Workaholic or Dedicated Employee?

Workaholic or Dedicated Employee?

Rutgers experts weigh in on texting the office from the beach and other potential work addictions

More high-tech devices make it even harder for employees to break away from work.
On Gayle Porter’s summer vacation, she became addicted to the video game app   “Angry Birds.''  But she refused to use technology for work.

"I am NOT planning to review email but will respond to you as quickly as possible after my return,'' Porter a professor of management at the school of Rutgers Business School Rutgers-Camden, announced in an email auto response that week.

As Blackberries, iPhones, and iPads proliferate, along with lighter, more portable laptops, it's tougher for vacationers to disconnect from the workplace, experts say.

“Increasingly, if you don’t have one, you’ll have another and some people have five,’’ says Porter, who researches workaholic behavior and helped popularize the term “crackberry,’’ when her research was included in the  2008 book, The Long Work Hours Culture: Causes, Consequence and Choices, by Cary L. Cooper a  professor of the management at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.

But the jury’s still out on how available workers should be. If you text your boss from the beach are you a workaholic or a dedicated employee?

Technology has evolved so quickly  that there’s no consensus on when it’s inappropriate to use it for work during downtime – Terri Kurtzberg, – Rutgers Business School-

“It’s difficult to determine whether it’s an addiction level of involvement or something else,’’ says Porter. “When I’m on plane there’s almost always a family with a couple kids and a dad who’s on the smart phone. I always wonder whether this was set aside as vacation time and the guy is cheating his family by being on the device or whether this is someone who couldn’t have gotten away from his work otherwise and technology is allowing him to do that.’’

She considers it a personal victory that she resisted the urge to work on vacation and instead used her Nook reader to waste time playing "Angry Birds.''

 "I thought it was great that I could be absorbed in something else,'' she says.

Could you have a tech addiction if you're always plugged into the office on vacation?
Technology has evolved so quickly in recent years that there’s no consensus on when it’s inappropriate, or even unhealthy, to use it for work during downtime, according to Terri Kurtzberg, an associate professor at  Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick, who studies technology and communication in the workplace.

"We don't have any standards on what's normal and reasonable to expect from someone right now,'' she says. It's either going to be that we all need to be accessible all the time or there's going to be a standard that has to do with concerns about a lack of balance. But it's going to be quite some time until we get a better sense of how to get that balance and how to unplug.''

 In the meantime, the standards depend on the workplace.

 "It's so variable. If someone sends you an email at 1 a.m., do they expect an answer by 6 a.m.?'' said Kurtzberg, who doesn't own a Blackberry. "I've known people who ended up quitting for that reason. 'This person expects me to be available around the clock and that's not okay.’''

If you are the kind of worker who is available around the clock, even when you don't need to be, you could have a tech addiction said Kurtzberg. And no amount of vacation days will help.

But what causes tech addiction?

"There's two parts to it,’’ says Kurtzberg. “One is based on stimulation. Our brain responds the same way whether it's a chemical reward or not. It's exciting to get a new message. You're kind of high on it. People with low self-esteem tend to be over-checkers. The other part is it's an escape mechanism. It keeps your brain on a high, whizzing from page to page.''

Porter is hoping her research will help managers realize that employees who tether themselves to laptops and iPhones aren’t necessarily getting the job done.

“One of the crusades of my work is to create enough awareness for managers to know that when they see certain behaviors, it could be a good thing or a bad thing,’’ said Porter. “If someone is constantly at their computer and always available because of it, their work performance may be suffering. An addictive person will trade off actual results in order to keep working. If workers are meeting outcomes, and they couldn’t take a vacation and you’re getting emails at 3 a.m. That’s cause for concern.’’

But according to James Katz, chair of the Department of Communications at Rutgers School of Communication and Information, if you ignore work emails and texts on vacation, it could harm your career.

"A vacation is something people are entitled to,''said Katz, who studies the social consequences of new communications technology. "There's no reason we could logically hold it against them. However, people being what they are, if you get that "vacation message,'' you get a sense that you can't rely on the person. If you can't rely on them, they're not vital. People draw conclusions as appropriate.''

But Katz pointed out that while employers use technology to intrude on workers' free time, workers are increasingly using tech to keep up with family and friends on the job. "You also have to look at the other side of the coin. At work, people are accessible when they didn't used to be. People contact you about family issues and friends and family are also brought with us to the workplace. And that's understood.''

Although some bosses expect 24-7 access, others are growing concerned that too much work time online can hurt employee performance. And they believe that an uninterrupted vacation is best for workers in the long run.

“Research has found the relationship between vacation and the positive effects to health and well-being can boost productivity,’’ said Paula Caligiuri, a professor at Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations who specializes in workplace psychology. “The more enlightened employers know that their best performers will burn out if they become work-life balance martyrs.’’