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Post-holiday blues

Your career: Information overload

As this summer's first wave of holidaymakers brush the sand from between their toes and drag themselves back to work, many, on arriving at their desks, will feel like weeping.

However vigilant you are at clearing your in-tray beforehand, chances are you'll return to a mountain of unopened mail and tens, if not hundreds, of unread e-mails. So much for promises of a paperless office.

According to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at UMIST, a recent survey shows that 76 per cent of people feel burned out just one week after the end of their holiday because there is so much to do when they get back.

The same survey indicates that 35% of people - mostly men - access their mobile phones every day while on holiday, while 20% call their office and 17% leave a contact number. 'I think it's pathetic, ' says Cooper, 'they don't give themselves the chance to de-stress.' Why not let everyone know a week or two in advance that you're going on holiday, he suggests, and give them your return date so they can get in touch with you then?

But what if it's too late and you're already starting to wrestle your way through the seasonal overload? Cooper suggests getting into work early on your first day back. 'Prioritise everything and deal with the most important issues first, ' he says. He also recommends trying to extend the beneficial effects of your holiday. 'Set yourself an 'exit time' for the first couple of weeks after you return, ' he says, 'Leave the office at 5 o'clock every day and go swimming or walking, while it's still summer.'

Coming back from our holidays serves to highlight what, for many of us, has become a serious and stressful workplace problem - information overload.

It's a widely recognised condition, says Angela Ishmael, head of the Industrial Society's Dignity at Work campaign. And it includes 'intranet overload', she says, where organisations use IT to bombard their staff with memos and other information, much of which will, inevitably, remain unread.

According to a recent article published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, more than 2.2 million e-mails are sent every day. So how do you handle the hundreds that have piled up in your inbox when you were away? If you don't have a secretary, you could get a colleague to help you out, and offer to do the same for them when they're on holiday. Or better still, post a message that tells people automatically that you cannot be contacted until the date you arrive back in the office.

Coming in early the day after your holiday is definitely a good idea as it means you can make a start on the backlog before colleagues arrive and start asking questions about your holiday.

A number of organisations are developing clearer policies on emails to aid the working day, says Ishmael. 'It's all a matter of raising awareness on how best to use IT, ' she says. 'I like e-mail but we need to be aware that it's not a substitute for all other forms of communication; sometimes it might be more effective to pick up the 'phone'.

What happened to the paperless office?

The paperless office is already here according to Ian Angell, professor of IT systems at the London School of Economics, but no one believes in it. 'People are very nervous - you can't touch the information inside your computer, and it does have a habit of disappearing, ' he adds.

As a result, he says, we all end up creating a second system, to make sure that if IT fails us, we can rush to the filing cabinet. 'People end up making copies of copies. In the past, you would make one draft version, make changes with a pen, then type it up again. Now, you make copies of each draft, making slight changes each time.'

According to Angela Edward, policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, support staff bear the brunt of this problem. Even if you are willing to trust technology, she says, your boss is likely to be an A4 addict.

'The number of secretaries who are told to print out emails by their boss is ridiculous, ' Edwards says.

'The boss takes it away, makes some notes on the train, and the next day brings it into the office for the secretary to rewrite and print out.'

Key points

Tell people that you are going away a couple of weeks in advance

Avoid taking your work on holiday with you

Prioritise items in your intray when you get back

Let your holiday 'spill over' by leaving work at 5pm and going swimming

Ask a colleague to sort through you e-mails or post a message saying you are away until a certain date.

Your career is compiled by Fiona McWilliam fiona@gn.apc.org and Sally O'Reilly sally.platt@btinternet.com

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