August 8, 2007

Taming Technology

2007 1522 page26 capHE TIPTOES QUIETLY DOWN THE HALL in her three-bedroom apartment and peeks into the room where her daughters lie sleeping. Their regular breathing and stillness elicit from her a sigh of relief.
Her son had settled down quickly tonight, but her youngest daughter, Lauryn, had fought drowsiness with requests for a drink and “one more story.” With her husband working late, the bedtime duties had fallen solely to her.
She now makes the trip to her own bedroom and settles in front of a computer. About an hour before the late-night news begins, she digs into a Web design contract job due soon for completion.
It will be past midnight before she joins her children in slumber.
Larie Gray, a member of a Washington, D.C.-area Seventh-day Adventist church, is one of nearly 21 million women and men in the U.S. who work from home as part of their primary job, based on the latest statistics compiled in 2004 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 About 78 percent of the approximately 10,000 women who earn most of their income working from their homes use a computer to accomplish their work duties, and 66 percent use e-mail. The figures are not much different for men.
“I wouldn’t be able to be here with my children and still bring home a paycheck if it weren’t for my computer,” Gray says.
Today’s technological devices are not only making it possible for more people to work from their homes; they allow greater flexibility for those who make the daily home-to-office commute. Laptops, cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), fax machines, and the services they provide--such as access to the Internet and e-mail--are taking workers out of their 9-to-5 rut and giving them more work-time options.
2007 1522 page26But is the blurring of the work/life boundaries always a good thing?
Audiologist William Nelson says yes-as long as you can set limits.
“If a person doesn’t have a lot of self-control and has a hard time establishing personal priorities, then I think technology would probably increase their stress level because it gives people access to everything no matter where they’re at--and they can’t stop,” Nelson says.
Yet Nelson, who owns an audiology practice in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, claims establishing priorities isn’t a problem for him.
“Can I go away on vacation for a week and not check e-mail? Definitely,” Nelson says. “But I don’t think I would go for a week without my cell phone. A cell phone can be a lifeline in some situations.”
Bill Knott, editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World, agrees that technology can be a work asset.
“I view [technological devices] as tools that create an avenue for me to reach back and do the work of the office,” Knott says, “even when I’m a long ways distant.”
Some, though, say expanding work boundaries are making it more difficult to keep their work responsibilities separate from their personal lives.
If sitting in a restaurant having dinner with his wife and his cell phone rings displaying a work-related phone number, Richard Carey says, “I would no doubt answer it.”
“I would be lost without the phone numbers, my schedule, and the other essential data maintained on my cell phone,” notes Carey, director of Education for the Southern California Conference. “My cell phone is always with me and always on. . . . And not having e-mail would be like living on a desert island.”
Carey, who says his traveling gadgets also include a portable fax, a miniature hard drive, and a digital camera, admits to never taking even family vacations without his laptop. “I do check [my e-mails] less often on vacations,” he adds.
General Conference Ministerial Department associate Sharon Cress sees technology as sometimes inhibiting personal interaction.
“Technology has become the easy and quick way for us to ‘express ourselves’ and I use that term loosely,” Cress says. “Few times now do we walk to our neighbor’s [house] to share sorrow over the loss of a pet, or pen a handwritten note of courage to a disillusioned colleague. Instead, we send out an e-card or send a text message, which looks like a foreign language to some of us.”
Cress describes an experience of visiting a pastor’s wife who pulled out of her Bible “a worn and tattered note” Cress had sent to her several years before. “She told me it was the only personal note she remembered receiving,” Cress explains. “It has since launched countless more. I learned a big truth that day.”
Knott also admits the effects of today’s technology are not all positive.
“It is certainly influencing quality of life,” he says.
Describing quality of life as a healthful balance between work and fun, the developing of relationships, and pleasurable moments, Knott adds, “Those things are usually infringed upon by technology. I had more of them in my life before technology became such a big piece of it.”
In short, our lives today consist of more work and less play.
Overwork is emerging as an issue needing more serious attention, a 2005 Families and Work Institute study reveals.2 One in three of the some 1,000 employees in the study reports feeling chronically overworked, and some counselors say they are seeing more evidence of overwork among their patients.
Serena Gui, assistant director of Behavioral Medicine for Florida (Adventist) HospitalÕs Family Medicine Residency Program and a psychologist, says she’s spending more time helping physicians sort out their work/life priorities.
Social norms today cause people to feel they always must be on call, Gui says, so people feel compelled to answer work-related cell phone calls or e-mails even during personal time.
“This is really a self-discipline issue,” she says. “We are allowing our work-related boundaries to keep expanding, but we need to rein them in.”
Gui says she tells even physicians there are usually few “life-and-death issues” they need to deal with when they’re off the clock.
“Life wonÕt come to an end if you don’t answer that late-night phone call from work,” she tells them, but says she also realizes exceptions exist, particularly for on-call physicians.
Gui counsels physicians who feel their work/life boundaries are out of control that drawing lines and designing schedules can be the answer.
“If someone tells me it’s impossible for them not to answer their cell phone or respond to a text message,” Gui says, “I tell them to leave their gadgets at the office. It’s as simple as that.”
And Gui follows her own advice.
Preferring face-to-face conversations to e-mails and text messages, as well as believing in keeping personal time “sacred,” Gui confesses to fighting the temptation to purchase a cell phone for 10 years.
“I bought my first cell phone just a week ago,” Gui told the Adventist Review in her recent interview, “and I’m still not certain I’m keeping it.”
Gui concedes technological gadgets are not “all bad” and very useful in times of emergencies or situations such as parents keeping in touch with their children.
“I’m not against technology,” she says. “Technology is a large part of who we are today.
“It just can’t control us.”

1 Bureau of Labor Statistics:
2Families and Work Institute:


Sandra Blackmer is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.