Richard Smith: Is email work?

Richard Smith “Email is not work. It’s a distraction.” So said a fierce, bearded lecturer at a talk I attended recently. Is he right?

I have every reason to think him wrong because I tend to start every day by answering my emails—after looking at the BBC News website, Twitter, and Facebook, always in that order. I look forward to the moment when I open up my email and see which fascinating and sometimes much loved people have emailed me.

Answering my emails is the same for me as those Victorians I admire—Trollope, Ruskin, Gladstone, and the like—answering their voluminous correspondence in front of an open fire. William Wilberforce, one of my heroes and a protoVictorian, spent much of his day answering letters. And in those days you could receive a letter, answer it, receive a response, and answer that all in one day. Email has restored us to such a world, only now it’s global.

Because I “work” (I’d better use inverted commas) with a Yahoo address my emails are a mixture of “work” and “pleasure.” Increasingly they are indistinguishable, which some might say is a sure sign that I’m a workaholic; or perhaps I’m a pleasureaholic. It’s more likely the latter as it feels good not bad, but then presumably workaholics also feel good.

If I have to categorise, more of my emails are “work” than “pleasure,” but I’m very fond of many of the people I “work” with. And they are scattered all over the world. At least three quarters of my emails come from people outside Britain whom I “work” with. Answering my emails I make all sorts of suggestions to people (students doing interviews in Costa Rica), engage in debates (the preferred global target for salt reduction), introduce A to B (which is much of what old men like me do), and fix meetings. These seem to me to be work. The fixing of meetings might be done by somebody paid much less than me, but I rather like doing it—and it seems much more efficient than having an assistant do it for me.

The statement of the bearded lecturer raises the question of “What is work?” Digging roads, catching fish on freezing days in the North Sea, picking lettuces, and building a new house are all work, and so, I suppose, is answering the phone in a call centre or writing a novel. But I doubt that the bearded lecturer does any of these. He’s a strategist, a plotter. Most of his work is probably meeting with people, trying to persuade them to do x or overseeing people doing y. Is that work?

On Sunday I will fly to India and then onto China. I will give talks, be in meetings, make arrangements, do deals. Is that work when emailing is not? It all feels very similar except I do one sat at a computer, sometimes in my pyjamas, listening to Bach and the other I do on my feet, face to face with real people not a screen.

This is all very confusing. When I listened to bearded lecturer I thought that I perhaps needed to change my ways. Now I’m not so sure. What I am sure is that blogging is not work. Or is it?

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.