Slaves to the inbox

March 2018
Ben Shragge

“Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free,” so the Passover story goes.

I’m grateful for not having to do unpaid manual labour all day, and for not living in Egypt, but still, I’m not quite free.

Last summer I was lying on a beach in Cape Cod, facing the majestic Atlantic Ocean, on holiday. Kids were filling buckets with sand, making castles; free in paradise. Meanwhile, all I could think about was my work inbox filling up with unread emails I’d have to answer. I had added my work email to my phone, and, in slave-like fashion, couldn’t resist checking it on the beach.

What was so urgent that I had to check my email then and there, taking me away from the place I was at and the person I was with? It felt very urgent at the time, but now I don’t remember. I just remember the feeling of enslavement.

The poet William Blake spoke of “mind forg’d manacles” we carry with us, and I felt their weight then. No Pharaoh was there commanding me to check my work email on the beach. I wasn’t told before I left that I needed to check emails on holiday. I was my own taskmaster, serving that little circled number above the mail icon, and its implied command of “Check me now! Check me now!”

I’m not alone. The American Psychological Association found that 53 percent of employed Americans check work messages on the weekend, 52 percent before or after work on weekdays, 54 percent when home sick, and 44 percent while on vacation. Researchers at the University of British Columbia compared the stress levels of adults instructed to limit checking email three times a day with those told to check as often as they could. They found that “People find it difficult to resist the temptation of checking email, and yet resisting this temptation reduces their stress.”

With our cellphones in hand, we’re always connected, always theoretically “free” to be contacted and available to respond, and so never actually free. There’s always another email to answer, update to check, and alert to swipe. Clive Thompson, in Mother Jones magazine, writes that this “digital tether” leads to “a Heisenbergian uncertainty to one’s putative off-hours, a nagging sense that you can never quite be present in the here and now, because hey, work might intrude at any moment. You’re not officially working, yet you remain entangled—never quite able to relax and detach.”

Even Israelite slaves, hauling bricks for Egypt’s infrastructure program, didn’t feel pressured to check email after hours. Even God, after six long days of world creation, allowed himself some rest on the seventh. We should allow ourselves the same.

It would have felt liberating to have thrown my phone into the ocean, but that wouldn’t have gotten rid of the emails. They’d still be there, up in the Cloud, raining down on my parade. 

Ultimately you need to strike down your inner taskmaster to be free. To do so is to recognize that mentally being at work all the time is not only detrimental to your life; it’s detrimental to your work. Someone who works all the time is stressed all the time, and stress elevates cortisol levels, leading to low energy, scattered focus, poor decision-making, and diminished productivity. 

Sacrificing life for work is really sacrificing both, because a productive worker is a happy worker, and a happy worker has a life outside of work. “Good moods,” writes psychologist Daniel Goleman, “enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity, thus making it easier to find solutions to problems.” Inbox slavery does not lead to good moods and creative solutions.

A productive worker takes real vacations, because breaks allow our brains to recharge and ultimately improve our job performance. Also, because a study found that people who don’t take vacations are 30 to 50 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who do, and it’s a lot more productive to be alive than dead.

My planned exodus this year is to go from lying on a beach in Cape Cod, thinking about an ever-growing inbox, to lying on a beach in Brazil, thinking, “Here I am, lying on a beach in Brazil.”

Ben Shragge is the digital editor of the Hamilton Jewish News. He currently resides in Boston.


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