By Cindy Perman, CNBC.com
Do you check your work email on an iPhone, BlackBerry or other smartphone after-hours?
Take my email away — what? Sorry, I can't hear you. Join the club: More than 80 percent of workers say they continue to work from home even after they leave the office, according to a recent survey from mobile-research firm Good Technology. Nearly two-thirds said they check their work email before 8 a.m., and a whopping 40 percent admitted to checking email at the dinner table!
"All you have to do is go out to a nice restaurant and look at all the people checking their emails in between courses to see how pervasive it is," said Michael Crom, the chief learning office at the Dale Carnegie Institute, a corporate training organization.
Some people say checking email after-hours helps them get organized, get through the crush of email and better balance their work-family life. Others say it's becoming a huge problem - one that's masking other issues.
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"Checking, sending and receiving work emails after-hours is becoming an American disease," said Jeremy Redleaf, a filmmaker and founder of job-listing site OddJobNation.com. "Not only is it often expected that you'll be available, some people use it to hedge against daytime slacking."
Whether you think it's helpful or destructive is debatable, but here's a staggering fact: Working from home adds up to an average of a month and a half of overtime per year, the Good Technology study found.
In Canada, there are several class-action lawsuits on this issue, where employees are suing their employers for overtime pay for this extra work done off-hours. Last year, Brazil actually passed a law stating that employees are entitled to overtime pay for this work. German auto maker Volkswagen got around the issue by shutting off union workers' email half an hour after their shift ends, then putting it back on half an hour before their shift starts the next day.
How would this ever play out in America? Would companies have to start paying overtime or would they simply follow Volkswagen and shut off the email after-hours? Would gadget-addicted workers panic? Riot in the streets? Or, would they actually be happier?
"If my employer shut off my phone during off-hours, I would probably freak out!" said Gina Vergel, the assistant director of communications for Fordham University. "I was responding to emails when I boarded the cruise ship I just took this past weekend, so clearly I need an intervention!"
An informal reader poll conducted by PC Magazine, where you think you'd find the most gadget addicts, found that 43 percent said, yes, they'd like their company to turn off access to work emails after-hours. Fifteen percent said, "No! What if something important happens?" Twenty percent said "Maybe a compromise; important emails only," and 19 percent said, "Doesn't matter; I don't check email after-hours anyway."
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"I think many people would welcome 'email amnesty' if it meant everybody that would normally be sending email were shut off as well," said Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at workforce-management firm Kronos.
Redleaf said, "Culturally, we tend to respond strongly to anything that takes away control... but, after an initial outcry, I'd wager that people would find themselves happier."
"I wish e-mail was shut off to everybody's phone after 5 PM," said comedian Harrison Greenbaum. "I'd love to go out to dinner with people or go to a show without everyone compulsively checking their mobile devices every 5 seconds. I mean, really? Are you getting that much important e-mail that you have to check your phone seven times before dessert?!"
"I think we all would love to be able to send email to others after-hours but not receive it!" joked Marie McIntyre, a career coach and the author of "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics."
"Employees with demanding managers who constantly intrude into their personal time would undoubtedly throw a party," McIntyre said. "But people who habitually use quiet time in the evening to get organized for the next day might be upset. However, I expect that everyone would eventually adapt - except perhaps for those very demanding managers, who might just start sending messages through LinkedIn or Facebook!"
Most people agreed - the key is setting ground rules.
Crom said freelancers and junior staff probably shouldn't be expected to put in additional unpaid hours, but senior level employees should be treated differently because they have more responsibility and are expected to be able to complete more work in less time.
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McIntyre said employers should be more respectful of employees and try to contact them after-hours only when it's an emergency.
"Bosses need to be reasonable and not use email as an electronic leash," McIntyre said. "And people also need to engage in a little self-management - unless there is an emergency at work, you don't need to be checking your phone every ten minutes or even every hour."
"The entire concept of the 'work day' is changing, but that doesn't mean everyone can't feel respected and compensated," Redleaf said. "If someone goes so far as to file an overtime lawsuit, the problem is bigger than lost wages."
Employers, Redleaf said, need to understand the value of offering employees flexibility, autonomy and ownership in their work.
"Their workers aren't monkeys … only motivated by the promise of more bananas," he said. "If they empower their employees to take back control of their day and feel a part of something bigger than themselves, I have a feeling they won't be facing nearly as many lawsuits."
McIntyre recalls one client who found his BlackBerry such a burden that he locked it in his car every night.
She stressed the value of a little down time.
"Even though we now live in a world of 24/7 communication, we have to realize that people need time away from work to relax and refresh," McIntyre said. "Giving your brain a vacation from work will actually make you much more productive when you return."
Patrick Reynolds, the EVP of marketing at tech firm Triton Digital, offered a touching - and hilarious - account of his attempt at being unplugged for 12 hours.
As soon as he walked out the door to go to work, he said he fidgeted with the "now-impotent headphones" in his pocket nervously. Then, he started to notice all the things he never heard before - the birds chirping. The sirens.
"[T]here are a lot of sirens in the city. Who knew?" he observed.
Things were going well until it started to rain on the way home and he panicked about whether his daughter's soccer practice had been canceled.
"Did my wife pick her up? Did a teammate's family drive her home? Was she standing there under a tree, a mop of soaked red hair pasted to her forehead waiting, waiting for her Dad to arrive?"
"How would I know without my [BLEEP]-ing phone?!"
Disaster averted, he made it through to the end of the day and actually talked to his wife before bed.
"While hard at first - this was my prime iPad hour after all - I nevertheless got the hang of it after some time."
Surviving his 12-hour ordeal, he concluded the next morning: "Technology is awesome. There's just too [EXPLETIVE] much of it."
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By Cindy Perman, CNBC.com