Are you an e-mail addict?

Even if they are taking the Fourth of July off from work, the odds are almost 50/50 that being on holiday won't keep Americans from peeking at their business e-mail.

It's a habit--42 per cent of e-mail users in the US check their business e-mail while on vacation, according to a study by technology researcher Gartner. Nearly one in four -- 23 per cent -- of those surveyed say they check work e-mail over weekends, too.

"Business use of cell phones, instant messaging and e-mail has crept into our lives on a 24-by-7 basis," says Maurene Caplan Grey, Gartner senior research analyst. "The connected vacationer is always on the alert for business interruptions."

Gartner queried 330 corporate e-mail users in February and March, talking to respondents drawn from a cross-section of US industries. E-mail, it seems, is taking up not only a bigger part of our supposed downtime, but also demanding more attention from us during regularly scheduled business hours.

On average, users spend nearly an hour (49 minutes) managing their e-mail. During workdays, 53 per cent of users responding to the Gartner survey check their e-mail six or more times a day. One third (34 per cent) say they check e-mail constantly throughout the day.

Addicted or Attentive

"People have all kinds of addictions. Compared to some others, e-mail is relatively harmless," says Anthony Lima, a professor of economics at California State University-Hayward.

"I think it stems from a need to feel indispensable at work," Lima adds. "Constantly checking e-mail and sending e-mail to coworkers is a way of sustaining that need."

Gartner's Caplan Grey says e-mail can be viewed as a new corporate security blanket, something that makes users feel vulnerable and left out if they can't have access to it.

"With the downturn in the economy, I think workers feel that their jobs are in jeopardy," she says.

Lima admits to reading student e-mails during the weekend, but insists he shuns e-mail during vacation.

"I think that this notion that staying in constant touch will somehow make you more productive, is completely wrong," Lima says. "The whole point of going on vacation is to get away from work and then come back refreshed and ready to tackle the problems again."

Occupational Spam

It turns out, however, that all that e-mail isn't quite so important. The survey shows that US users receive an average of 22 e-mail messages per day. Only 27 per cent require immediate attention. Another 37 per cent were classified as "occupational spam," gratuitous e-mail from coworkers that don't necessarily merit a reply or any other action on the recipient's part.

There might be a perfectly good reason to check e-mail during the weekend or a vacation, if only to avoid having to sift through hundreds of e-mail messages when you return to work.

Caplan Grey has a few suggestions for managing e-mail.

When you are away from your PC, use an automated out-of-office message that advises senders that you're not around and suggests an alternate contact. Also, she advises users to ask a trusted colleague to check their mail for them, and respond to any urgent requests that arise during an absence.

During the workweek and on weekends, the analyst suggests setting a specific time each evening, perhaps ten minutes or so, to respond to important mail so you can concentrate on other thoughts for the rest of the day. "It's important to know what your burnout limit is," Caplan Grey advises.

(Scarlet Pruitt of IDG News Service in Boston contributed to this report.)

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Frank Thorsberg

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