French Workers Don’t Have It As Easy As Brits Want to Believe

New rules allow some workers time off, but don’t demand anybody turn off their phones when they go home

golf phone
Email time. Jim Larrison

Americans are bad at being off the clock. We’re one of the few places where employers aren’t required to take time off, and we work more hours than nearly every other country aside from South Korea and Japan. And when we are given days off, many people don’t take them. Lots of writers have bemoaned the downsides of workers chained to their desks, smart phones and emails. So it's nice (or jealousy-inducing) to imagine that some workers, somewhere have a little bit of an easier time disconnecting. And of course, it's easy to imagine that place would be France, which is already known for giving its workers a break.

Yesterday, the Guardian reported that a million employees in the technology and consultancy realm would be forced to turn off their phones and stop checking emails at 6 p.m. This is a great story: it fits exactly with our ideas about France and makes someone who's checking their email first thing in the morning and last thing at night groan with envy. The problem is, it's not quite right. The French newspaper Les Echos has the full agreement to read. The agreement is (obviously) in French, and the translation of that agreement has caused a bit of trouble. You see, nobody is actually forcing the French workers to turn off their phones.

Slate reports that the agreement is actually far more nebulous and specific. It applies to about a quarter of those one million people that the Guardian pointed to—only specific contractors that don't have specific hours and are thus not necessarily confined to France's 35-hour work week rule, which has been in place since 1999. The agreement gives this particular type of worker an "obligation to disconnect." Slate explains what that means:

From the looks of it, the “obligation to disconnect” defined in the agreement is basically an acknowledgement that these independent workers have a right to a solid chunk of time off every day. “The agreement guarantees them a minimum daily rest period of 11 hours, which is to say that they can work legally up to 13 hours per day," writes. “Not really a day that ends at 6 p.m.—unless it starts at 5 in the morning.” 

Enforcing this rule will be hard, and not everybody’s jobs can afford the off-time, says Tom de Castella at the BBC:

Enforcing an email ban would be almost impossible, argues Alief Rezza, an oil analyst in Stavanger, Norway. He checks email every half hour when he leaves work at 16:30 until 19:00. The stock market is still open and he might get an urgent message from colleagues in London. When he wakes he checks to see if colleagues in the US or Singapore have been in touch. "I don't think a ban would work. If Norway bans my company from sending emails to me then my company needs to make sure someone is able to cover the request that should have been in my inbox." The industry would find a way around it, he argues.

And, not everybody agrees that a simple ban on emails is the way to fix the overworking problem.”A better approach is to educate managers about work-life balance and encourage them to prioritise,” de Castella writes. But, even if it’s not going to solve the problem, it's a lovely idea: you go home from work, and you're actually home. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.