From beaches, poolside lounges, family barbecues and amusement parks, dedicated workers steal a few minutes here and there to check in on work via BlackBerries, Treos and cell phones. Others log on to corporate networks from out-of-town hotels and coffee shops.The growing popularity of mobile gadgets and the widespread use of home computers is fueling an increase in those who work while on vacation. But don't be too quick to call these tech-toting, overcommitted employees workaholics. Certainly, a "CrackBerry" in the wrong hands can be like an open bar to a booze hound. But electronics may be tools of liberation for harried executives, allowing them to get out of the office and spend most of a vacation day with family or friends, workplace experts say.
"It really is a mixed bag," said Diane Halpern, director of the Berger Institute for Work, Family and Children at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Technology works both ways. For some people who are able to put limits on how much they use it, it can be a helpful tool. Just because someone checks e-mail on vacation doesn't make them a workaholic."
People who mix a little work in with a vacation are probably better off than those who skip their vacations completely, Halpern and others say. According to a recent study commissioned by travel Web site Expedia, one out of three Americans fails to take some of his or her allotted vacation time each year.
"The true workaholic probably doesn't take vacation," Halpern said.
Estimates vary, but two recent studies found that working vacations are on the rise.
A July survey of 700 American workers by Steelcase, a Michigan office-furniture manufacturer, found that 43 percent of respondents say they work on vacation days. That number is a sharp increase from the 23 percent who took their jobs along on vacations in 1995, according to the company.
A recent survey by Expedia and Harris Interactive found that 23 percent of American adults have checked work e-mail or voice mail while vacationing, compared with only 16 percent in 2005.
Everyone, from executives to minimum-wage workers, puts in more hours on the job today, Halpern said. That's just a reality of modern America, not a function of mobile technology, she said.
"Technology has blurred the lines between work and home," Halpern said. "For many people, that gives them flexibility to blend the needs of family and work."
It has also blurred the lines between work and vacation.
"It's no longer the old idea of vacation, of getting completely away from work," she said.
Halpern said she takes her BlackBerry along on vacation and checks her e-mail.
"Absolutely," she said. "I check my e-mail two times a day. I allow myself that much."
Los Angeles executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International found, in a survey of more than 2,000 executives worldwide, that most managers see the gadgets as helpful in balancing work and family life.
In the survey, 81 percent said they were always connected to work through mobile devices, such as cell phones, PDAs, laptops or pagers. Nearly as many, 77 percent, said the mobile technology was helpful in meeting the needs of work and family.
Some executives reported concerns about their use of mobile tools, with 38 percent saying they spend too much time connected to the office.
Taking a BlackBerry on vacation may not always be a sign of workaholism, but there are workplace researchers who have concerns about mobile gadgets in the hands of workaholics.
Companies could soon find themselves facing lawsuits from employees who argue that employers took advantage of workaholic tendencies by providing mobile technology and encouraging or requiring work at all hours, according to a paper co-written by Rutgers University researcher Gayle Porter.
"The intersection of high work demands and heavy use of technology suggests a problem," Porter said in an e-mail interview.
"People can become addicted to work and also addicted to technology, so people whose work requires use of technology are more vulnerable," she said. "Not everyone who heavily uses technology is addicted, but some people are not able to draw the line and let it take over too much of their lives."
Porter said she loves technology, but doesn't stay plugged in 24 hours a day. She uses the Internet to arrange travel, and enjoys the convenience of hotel Wi-Fi when she takes a laptop along on business travel.
But when Porter's on vacation, you won't reach her by e-mail, even if you're the president of Rutgers, because she stays offline. Of course, he probably has access to her cell phone number. Still, he'd have to leave a message unless Porter was expecting his call; she generally keeps her phone turned off unless she needs to use it.