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Feds return to work dreading unread email trove

by Ellen Mccarthy

The Washington Post

There were a few times in recent weeks when Sophia Casey found herself mindlessly walking toward her laptop, ready to scan for new work messages as she’s always done at nights and on weekends. Then she would see the computer — powered down, closed and unplugged — and remember: furlough.

The Pavlovian twitch to constantly check email had begun to ease just when Congress voted Wednesday to send Casey and her colleagues in the federal government back to work. Back to the office, and to whatever mountain of messages waiting in the inbox after 16 days away.

Casey’s total: 1,563 emails. Just looking at them started to give her “a little headache over my right eyeball,” so she got up and walked away.

This doesn’t happen anymore. Even on vacation, we instinctively reach for our phones to scroll through messages, making sure the world continues to function in spite of our absence. And to lessen the blow upon our return. If you’ve been checking all along, you know what you’re in for once you’re back at your desk.

Furloughed federal workers had no such luxury — or burden, depending on your point of view.

“It took a minute for it to sink in,” said Casey, a federal analyst. “But then once I got a message that said, ‘Hey, it’s really illegal if you work when you’re not supposed to’ — well, that’s all I needed to read.”

For what it’s worth, Andrew Martin, chief librarian at the National Labor Relations Board, did some digging and couldn’t find any precedent for prosecuting furloughed workers who surreptitiously sneak in a little work, but he was happy enough to change the settings on his phone to block work email. “It was absolutely wonderful,” said Martin, a father of two young girls whose wife was also furloughed. He grew his facial hair into mutton chops, smoked brisket and discovered that he “would be really good at being retired.”

But he’s only 39; retirement will have to wait. On Thursday, he woke up and forgot what time he had set his alarm. He couldn’t find his cuff links or collar stays.

Once he finally got to the office and logged on, he “very fearfully peered at it through my fingers, afraid there was going to be a comma in the number of emails in my inbox. ‘Please be three digits instead of four!’ “

Phew. Only 150. Seems everyone else followed orders to stay away from their BlackBerrys, too. Martin sent out a news clipping, as he normally would, just to let his colleagues know he was back in action.

Casey hopes the furlough actually changed parts of her brain. She doesn’t want to be as connected as before, hoping now to shut off when she’s not at work and focus her energy on her husband, son, two foster children and her second job as a life coach.

“This is the new me,” she said — the one who doesn’t check her BlackBerry more than once a night.

That’s a strategy Alex Moore can get behind. He’s the chief executive of Baydin, makers of the Email Game, an online program that helps users manage the overwhelming flow of messages.

A study out of University of California at Irvine found that people’s heart rates normalized when they were away from email for five days. They were also less stressed and better able to focus.

“But when you get back, that’s the problem,” Moore said. “It’s all there waiting for you.”

And if you try to go through all the messages “in one heroic death march, it piles up even more” when people respond the next day.

Instead of that approach, Moore suggests breaking it up and committing to going through a certain number of backlogged messages each day, plus any new ones that come in.

Casey is using exactly that tactic. She put all 1,563 emails in a folder and reminded herself that “nothing’s going to break if I don’t answer them right now.”

She worked from home Thursday to ease herself back into the grind. As soon as she logged on, she fired off an email message of her own. Her most pressing order of business: a request for vacation time.