A labor reform law passed recently in France sparked wide protest in the country, but the legislation also spotlights a universal concern about how work has further encroached into workers’ personal lives.
The French government forced through the El Khomri law that would allow companies that are failing to fire their employees and other unpopular measures and that has led to riots and protests, The New Yorkerreports. But a so-called “right to disconnect” provision in the law has resonated beyond France.
“The development of information and communication technologies, if badly managed or regulated, can have an impact on the health of workers,” reads Article 25 of the law. “Among them, the burden of work and the informational overburden, the blurring of the borders between private life and professional life, are risks associated with the usage of digital technology”
The law recommends that companies hash out formal policies to limit after-work emails and other forms of digital communications that keep employees from breaking free from work. The legislation cites examples of proactive firms, such as Volkswagen’s policy to cut off its servers after hours, and Daimler giving its employees permission to delete emails they get on vacation.
Although not related to after-work email, Aetna also received some praise when its CEO announced earlier this year that the insurance giant would pay employees for getting 20 nights of sleep for seven hours or more, Slate noted.
But how likely is it that more firms will adopt similar measures to limit after work emails? David Burkus, an associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University and author, applauded “the idea of restricting emails to work hours or close to it,” according to a Business Insiderarticle.
“I think we had a pretty good handle on work email until 2007/2008, when smartphones came to dominate the landscape,” he said. “Now, if you have email on your phone…you take your work home with you every day.”
In his latest book, “Under New Management,” Burkus wrote about after-work emails and cites Volkswagen’s policy of shutting down its servers, thus preventing workers from getting emails until the next morning, as better than banning email. But workers themselves also have to assess whether they are as much to blame.
“We all feel pressured to respond quickly, but we feel like it’s someone else pressuring us,” Burkus said. “Maybe it’s all in our heads. Maybe, we should start the conversation with coworkers and customers about what our email norms should be.”
While the French government pushed the law through without a vote from Parliament in May, by July it was adopted by the Parliament, the Associated Press reports. French companies with more than 50 employees would be required to work out a “charter of good conduct” with union representatives. “The text [of the agreement] would detail the hours, usually in the evening and over the weekend, when employees are not expected to be connected to their ‘digital tools,’ from emails to smartphones and laptops,” the AP story reported.
While a law that encourages restricting after-work email has been mocked outside France, Benoit Hamon, a French socialist member of parliament, points to studies showing how staying connected has led to work-related stress, the BBCreports.
“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work,” Hamon said. “They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash--like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails--they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”
A recent research paper does lend credence to Hamon’s contention. The paper, “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect” found that “email is notoriously known to be the impediment of the recovery process” after the work day, its authors wrote.
“Its accessibility contributes to experience of work overload since it allows employees to engage in work as if they never left the workspace, and at the same time, inhibits their ability to psychologically detach from work-related issues via continuous connectivity,” the paper’s authors wrote. One global law firm drew the scorn of its workers when last year it sent out an April Fool’s Day memo letting staff know that no emails would be sent in the evenings or weekends anymore, according to an article in the Independent.
The prank email noted that the firm was “proud to be taking a leadership role in caring about our colleagues’ quality of life.” A little after 3 p.m. on that day the firm’s executive partner sent out an email apologizing for the prank email.
But not everyone in France is a fan of the government calling for restrictions on after work email even as they agree that limiting them is a good idea, the BBC noted. Olivier Mathiot, chief executive at online marketplace PriceMinister in Paris, who put in place a “no-email Friday” policy at his firm, favors education rather than legislation. “In France we are champions at passing laws, but they are not always very helpful when what we need is greater flexibility in the workplace.”
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