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Packing the Sunscreen -- Leaving the Laptop

You've always been one of those people who takes your laptop, your Net access, and, lately, your Palm everywhere -- even on vacation, where the complaints of your family compel you to sneak in some work time while everyone else sleeps. Here's one more insult, you relentless go-getter: You could be going out of style.

A recent survey shows a decline in the percentage of managers intending to pack work along with the sunscreen this summer. An American Management Assn. (AMA) poll of 1,100 managers and executives found that 19% plan on bringing work with them during the vacation period between Memorial Day and Labor Day -- down from 24% of those who responded to a similar survey in 1998. Moreover, fewer expect to keep in touch with the office -- 69% now, vs. 75% three years ago. Among the 150 CEOs who participated in the survey, taken in early June, the let's-have-a-real-vacation mentality has become even more pronounced: Only 26% said they would take work with them, down from 36% in 1998.

Are Americans changing their famously workaholic ways? Not entirely. After all, U.S. managers with one year of service at large companies still typically receive only about 10 days of vacation annually -- about half the amount given to similarly situated employees in the most miserly European countries, according to management consulting company Hewitt Associates. (In Finland, the average vacation for such employees is 30 days.) In addition, 75% of the CEOs surveyed said they would be in touch with the office during their vacations again this year -- though that's a drop from 86% in 1998.

TETHERED TOO TIGHTLY. So what's up? Maybe a bit of a backlash. Eric Greenberg, the AMA's research director, says the workpace in many companies has become so grueling that employees want a clear break during the little time they do take off. "The attitude would be, 'Hey, when I'm away, I'm away,'" Greenberg says.

David Dell, research director at The Conference Board, a New York City-based nonprofit business research group, believes that employees have started to recognize the dark side of the digital revolution. They realize that voice mail, e-mail, and the like can keep them tethered to the office if they don't watch out. "There has been a growing awareness that people need to carve out time for themselves, and that the intrusion of work into personal life has maybe gone a bit far," he says.

That may help explain why a handful of companies, fearful of employee burnout and high turnover, have even taken steps to discourage after-hours work. Under a program begun in its West Coast offices three years ago, accounting firm Ernst & Young gives employees its official blessing to take real time off. About half of E&Y's professionals, mainly accountants, are told that if they make plans for coverage in their absence and inform clients about it, they need not check voice mail and e-mail while on vacation, according to Susan Sweet, associate director of the firm's Center for the New Workforce, which used to be called its retention office.

"A TRUE VACATION." Of course, the Puritan ethic being what it is, the message doesn't always stick. "We do have a lot of workaholics in this business," Sweet says. "There are likely folks who say they are trying to be good and not check in -- but they are checking in."

One who resisted the temptation is John Watson, a director at an E&Y subsidiary. Before he traveled around Martha's Vineyard and Maine recently, on his first week off in several years, Watson, who is based in Palo Alto, Calif., decided to leave his laptop behind and his voice mail undisturbed. "It was a true vacation," he says. With one drawback: Watson found 75 voice messages and 225 e-mails awaiting him upon his return. By Pamela Mendels in New York

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