Is there any better feeling in working life than the moment you enable the out-of-office email? OK, I’m sure it feels pretty awesome to bank a £50m bonus, or crack the scientific code that will ensure the future survival of man. But, for regular wage-slaves, few things are more satisfying than to type the words: “I am now unavailable . . . ”
Out-of-office emails currently outnumber the real ones in my inbox by around three to one. Each is delivered with varying degrees of aggression — from passive to full-throttled. Some peers like to set out their summer plans in quite specific detail: “I will be halfway up the Matterhorn, which I plan to conquer using only my toenails. During this time I will have little access to WiFi so please forgive the delay in my response.”
Another announces that all incoming emails sent during their sabbatical will be trashed on their return. “So, if you still need a response, please try again then.” I like to imagine that person’s virtual bonfire, a pyre of round-robin birth announcements and queries as to “whether anyone in the office speaks Swedish” all going up in flames. I am particularly fond of the expression, “I am now on annual leave” — as though flopping around on an inflatable lollipop somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea is a mandatory undertaking one is forced to endure against one’s will. Americans seem fond of this phrase because they have a pathological terror of being “discovered” having leisure time.
And yet the out-of-office email is failing as a catch-all firewall against holiday intrusion. As more of us communicate via WhatsApp, or Instagram messages, or — God forbid — Facebook, our peers are ever harder to escape from. Hence the rise of the tech break, where one must publicly rescind one’s mobile phone use for the duration of a break in order to maintain one’s equilibrium.
Is anyone so professionally persecuted that they can’t risk even glancing at a screen? How horrific can those emails really be?
My Instagram feed is currently full of pictures showing piggy-toed feet posed in crystalline waters, or smug piles of unread books, alongside bold announcements about their owners going off-grid: “Putting my phone down for a few weeks. Back soon.”
Where once we had Fomo (fear of missing out), today’s buzzword is Jomo (the joy of missing out), and the sense of liberation that comes with disconnecting and putting down our phones. It’s all part of the new fashion for mental self-care, where phones are bad bad bad, and draining on about how bad they are is good.
In the most extreme example of unplugging, a number of alpha types now set themselves self-improving tasks designed to raise their contentment levels. An especially entertaining article in the New York Times last weekend described the benefits of a new type of “creative hiatus”, where business leaders looking to switch off eschew ordinary adventures, such as backpacking in Burma or sailing round the Cape to concentrate on projects they can do around the home. Trent Preszler, the chief executive of Bedell Cellars winery, will spend the summer hiding from friends in his garage and sanding a home-made canoe. One other couple, I kid you not, are building “a deluxe condo” for their pet lizard. They say it brings them a sense of liberation. They sound like they need some mental help.
In principle, I’m all in favour of the #digitaldetox. I understand that we are now prisoners of our technologies, enslaved by our iPhones. My phone dependence is obscene. I spend half my life wanting to throw it in the River Thames and the other half searching for it, only to find it in my own hand. But would I do digital detox? Don’t be daft.
First of all, it’s so self-aggrandising. Is anyone so professionally persecuted that they can’t risk even glancing at a screen? How horrific can those emails really be?
I also love the idea that anyone can think themselves so monstrously important they would need to tell people that they will no longer be online. Are we supposed to actually notice that Ella has stopped posting pictures of her children, or those random bits of wall art she likes? Should alarm bells start ringing because Buddy didn’t “like” our last Instagram post? What panic might ensue when Kate neglects to warn us that she won’t be uploading any amusing gifs this week? Or sharing anything on Twitter?
“Is she OK?” Yes, she’s just doing a digital detox. I mean, really. The only person who will miss you being on your phone during your detox will be you.
Surely there is some happy medium here. Naturally, you don’t want to be pestered with requests in your time off. But, let’s face it, catching sight of a global email regarding the “free cake next to the companies desk” is not likely to mentally discombobulate you, unless you really, really love free cake. And besides, what’s the point of going on holiday if you don’t want to share it with everyone else? I’m planning to up my mobile usage throughout my time off. Sending casual messages to co-workers, texting obsessively from free WiFi spots (“because I can!”) and posting hourly Instagram updates telling you just how very on-holiday I am.
Come to think of it, perhaps that’s the point. Maybe the digital detox is designed to preserve everyone else’s mental health.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018