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online everywhere

I’m currently sort of on vacation. I say “sort of” because modern day technology and society combine to really makes it impossible for many of us to be totally off work, totally away for a couple of days, and totally removed from instantaneous communications. Everyday of this trip, either my husband, or I, or both have received an “urgent”, “high priority” or “need response immediately” email or text message. He is trying to figure out how to set up a telecon tomorrow (that isn’t during dinner), and I’ve been sorting paperwork. As people working in technological fields (I do astronomy-related new media and he is a Flex and Java programming consultant), we are caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock is our soft money reality. I live grant to grant and he works contract to contract, and we can’t afford to miss any opportunities. The hard place is our high tech existence. We have in our cruise cabin enough technology to run a high tech startup, and the people we work with know they can count on us as needed.

(Here is where I insert a disclaimer: I love what I do. I am a work-a-holic. This is not meant as a complaint as much as a essay pointing out the reality that we find ourselves in. Without the outside world intruding, I’d use the time doing graphical design or writing. That’s just how I’m wired.)

Our situation isn’t unique. In our current economy, where a jobless recovery means we are all doing more and earning the same paycheck, redundancy in the workplace just doesn’t exist. For instance, Astronomy Cast’s website stopped displaying images for mysterious (likely hacked) reasons, and I don’t have a staff member capable of fixing the site for me, so later today, when I’m not 40 minutes from needing to run, I’ll be working to fix the website or (if I’m bandwidth limited) to document everything that needs done for Fraser. I also know that if Pingdom warns me IceHunters is down, that’s on me too. In our modern world, more and more people are living this type of a “crap – I actually am in a vital role” existence. There are times that it is nice to actual not be required.

This is having a couple major effects on us both as a society, and as humans in bodies not designed for this type of stress.

As a society, we seem to be creating this spiraling-out-of-control set of “always on” expectations. It is not unusual to get requests Friday afternoon for things that need to be done by Monday morning. This isn’t a problem with my institution. The requests I get are as likely to be from a collaborator working on a grant, as from a grant officer needing a last minute review, as from a magazine editor needing a last minute set of revisions to a story. It is not unusual to have colleagues spread across timezones requesting telecons / Skype-cons / webex meetings at hours spanning from 8am to 9pm. I’ve had situations where when I didn’t return an email on a Saturday within 2 hours, my phone started ringing on my actual and Google phone numbers. In a field where jobs are scarce, and money is scarcer, there is always concern that if I say no, if I don’t answer my phone, my email, my text messages, the opportunities those communications represent will instead get passed on to someone else who is able to answer questions at questionable hours. The only way to fix this societal “always on” mentality is for everyone to change at once – for everyone to say enough is enough, weekends aren’t for work, and after dinner isn’t either, and for all of us to shut our laptops off and take a personal timeout to live.

But that’s not going to happen. Right now, the person who draws a line in the sand and says, “I don’t work weekends” is labeled lazy and irresponsible. I hear these comments from senior faculty and senior researchers. They say, “So and so will never make it. They don’t take work home or come in on weekends.” I remember my last few weeks of undergrad getting called into one of my professor’s offices. At the time I was working 29 hours a week, had leadership positions in several clubs, and was maintaing a 3.7 GPA. I didn’t sleep very much. At least I didn’t think I did. The professor who called me into his office said he wanted to give me a bit of advice as I prepared to enter graduate school. He was concerned that if I wanted to succeed, I really needed to learn to sleep less and work more. I just kind of blinked at him. Now, roughly 15 year later, I realize he was right, and I have learned to get by on less sleep and to simply always do more.

This societal expectation that we have (and this may be a mostly US / Northern Europe / Australian kind of thing) that the successful will be constantly engaged  in work (or something like going to the gym) for 16 hours a day, every day is having physical consequences on many of us. For me, I admit, constant worry about getting everything done and everything funded manifests itself as weight gain (stupid stress hormones), worsened allergies (stupid stress related immune reaction), and insomnia (which is at least useful when up against deadlines). But I look around my friends and my colleagues and I realize I’m seriously lucky. Lucas Randall, an out going and friendly Aussie I know from TAMOz and Twitter, <a href=”http://t.co/CaJ0qx9″>had an anxiety attack come out of no where</a>. I’ve watched heart issues, blood pressure problems, anxiety, and weight gain to the point of diabetes effect others. I’ve seen in those I’m not too close to, the stress has led to finding doctors who will prescribe Ridalin and Xanax so they can get just that extra edge, and I’ve seen abuse of stronger things. People are pushing and pushing and pushing.

And they are pushing themselves because they love what they do and there just aren’t enough jobs and there just isn’t enough money, and as long someone is willing to work themselves to the bones to stay ahead, we all have to work ourselves to the bones to stay ahead.

And that’s the irony. Some of us are working ourselves literally to death (not me, I’m just working myself to the occasional allnighter) because we love what we do – we are working so hard we no longer know how to go on vacations, and are working so hard we are physically manifesting our stress – we are working so hard because the option of not doing what we do is an option we just can’t accept.

And the only solution I know (other than all of society changing at once) is to take these fields we love and create more jobs. This is a manyfold solution. It would allow people like me to staff things properly so that when I travel I know there is someone on my staff who can do everything I do (I think I’m 2 staff positions away from that, so back to fundraising). It would also mean that my husband could sign contracts 4 weeks out from a new job instead of the current, and stressful, 2 weeks, or sometimes just 2 or 3 days. And it would allow all of us to breath a little bit and fear a little bit less if email needs to go two days (or more) unanswered.

But until the world gets economically sorted out, my cell phone is on and I will respond if Pingdom calls my website’s name.