The advent of digital technology in the workplace has been a mixed bag. Email, texts and smartphones have given employees the ability to untether from landlines and desktop PCs, allowing them work on the road or even take an hour here or there for personal tasks. But there’s also a big downside—in many company cultures, the workday simply never ends, with employees expected to stay on top of email requests at home. That’s why, on January 1, France enacted a nationwide “right to disconnect” law for companies with over 50 employees, reports the Agence France-Presse.
“All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant," Benoit Hamon, a member of the French parliament tells Hugh Schofield at BBC. “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. 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.”
Alyssa Newcomb at NBC News reports that the law is not an outright ban on after-hours communication, but it requires employers with 50 or more workers to negotiate rules for how to deal with electronic communication outside work hours. If they decide to do so, the company can allow workers to completely ignore after hours texts and emails. Newcomb reports that the law will apply to just over 50 percent of the French workforce.
According to the AFP, about one third of workers in France report that they do after-hours work and that 60 percent support a law limiting the work intrusion into their private lives. In fact, at least one study shows that checking email less frequently during the day reduced stress and improved “well-being.”
But, while most people support the intent behind the right to disconnect, they don’t think it’s really possible in a global economy. “I think [the right to disconnect] is wonderful for improving the human condition but totally inapplicable,” a French software writer named Gregory tells Schofield. “In my company we compete with Indian, Chinese, American developers. We need to talk to people around the world late into the night. Our competitors don't have the same restrictions. If we obeyed this law we would just be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
A recent study called “Exhausted but Unable to Disconnect” contends that American workers also face the same pressures as French workers. The feeling that they need to be ready to respond to work communications at any time leads to anticipatory stress and leads to family problems, lack of rest and eventual burnout.
But Newcomb reports that it’s unlikely similar regulations will make it to the United States, where the work culture and regulatory structure is very different. “At some point in time the diligent employee will feel compelled to ‘catch up,’ which may result in working off the clock,” employment lawyer Jeffrey Adelson tells Newcomb. “My experience tells me the email faucet cannot be turned off once it is on.”
The AFP reports that some companies have already gotten the message about the always-on culture and have taken measures to reduce the email overload and reduce employee stress on their own. German automaker Daimler, for instance, lets its employees turn on an setting that automatically deletes any emails sent to them while they are on vacation.