The Fast Track explores the pros and cons of France’s new law requiring companies with more than 50 employees to establish protocols liberating workers from off-hours, work-related emails.
The year was 1998. I had just graduated from college and was working as an entry-level account coordinator in a large PR agency in New York City. I worked hard, but my days ended at 6PM when I left the office. Within the next year, though, Ethernet access at home had become a reality. Suddenly, I was expected to be on call for my boss for any and all client needs. I was irate. I felt I did not make enough money for this. I had experienced the freedom of a solidly eight-hour workday, and I wanted that freedom back.
It would never happen. Over the next several years, diffuse working hours would become so pervasive that France – as a country – felt the need to strike back. In this post, we’ll talk about France’s brand new law limiting required employee communication outside of designated work hours. We’ll discuss the particulars, as well as whether or not the policy can be effectively enforced.
On the first of this year, France’s “right to disconnect” law went into effect. The law obliges organizations with more than 50 employees to initiate “switching off” negotiations with their workforces. The goal of the negotiations is for everyone to agree on employees’ rights to ignore work-related requests outside the boundaries of regular work hours. If employer and employees cannot come to a satisfactory compromise, the organization must publish a charter that explicitly defines employee rights with respect to out-of-hours communication.
The measure was introduced last year by France’s labor minister Myriam El Khomri. According to the Washington Post, El Khomri received the idea from a report by Bruno Mettling, a director general in charge of human resources at telecommunications behemoth Orange. Mettling explained in his report that a “right to disconnect” policy would benefit employers as much as their employees, whom, he said, are likely to suffer psychosocial risks from a ceaseless communication cycle.
It’s not an empty claim. As reported in Le Monde and later in the Post, a recent study found than approximately 3.2 million French workers are at risk of “burning out,” defined as a combination of physical exhaustion and emotional anxiety.
According to an article in the Guardian, a study published by French research group Eleas showed that more than a third of French workers used their devices to do work out-of-hours every day. About 60 percent of workers were in favor of regulation to clarify their rights.
Another study out of the University of British Columbia found that participants who were assigned to check their email only three times a day were less stressed than those who could check their emails continuously. And Colorado State University found that even the anticipatory stress of expecting after-hours emails might have a negative effect on employee well-being.
Although France is known for its “official” 35-hour workweek, for many firms it’s in name only. Many French employees continue working remotely long after they leave for the day. In fact, now that France has a record-high unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent, the 35-hour workweek law has been called into question.
The “right to disconnect” law was part of a larger set of labor laws introduced in France last spring. The set was designed to combat some of the unintended negative consequences of the 35-hour workweek. One companion proposal, according to the Telegraph, would give companies the right to renegotiate longer hours and to pay less in overtime to employees who stay longer. Another proposal would make it easier for firms to hire and fire employees. The “right to disconnect” legislation was the only one of the proposed laws that did not generate widespread protests and strikes in France.
France is actually not the first nation to enact such a law. In 2014, Germany's labor ministry passed legislation banning managers from calling or emailing their staff outside of work hours except in an emergency. You can immediately spot the loopholes in that one. What constitutes an emergency, especially when you have a Type-A boss?
Nevertheless, according to the BBC, the law prompted several German companies to reduce the burden of overwork. Car manufacturer Volkswagen blocked all emails to employees’ Blackberries after-hours, while competitor Daimler said it would delete email received by employees while they are on vacation.
So what’s the reaction in France? Surprisingly, some employers are embracing it more than their employees. “There’s a real expectation that companies will seize on the ‘right to disconnect’ as a protective measure,” French workplace expert and Aristat director Xavier Zunigo said, as reported by the Guardian. “At the same time, workers don’t want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them.”
In the Guardian piece, work/life balance expert Anna Cox at the University of College London voiced a similar concern. “Some people want to work for two hours every evening, but want to be able to switch off between 3-5PM when they pick their kids up and are cooking dinner,” she said. “Others are happy to use their daily commute to get ahead before they arrive in the office.”
In other words, narrowly defining a policy may not work, since one work schedule does not fit all. The world of work is changing as rapidly as the technology, with more and more employees working remotely or with colleagues in other time zones,” said Cox. “Some of the challenges that come with flexibility are managing those boundaries between work and home and being able to say ‘actually I am not working now.’”
Laws such as the one in France will certainly encourage better dialogue about effective work/life balance, or as I prefer to call it, work/life integration. If companies can no longer dump as much work as possible on their employees regardless of working hours, they will hopefully make a concerted effort to define their expectations, what’s truly important, and how employees can contribute in the manner that’s in the best interest of their own health and the health of the organization.
Meanwhile, is France bound to lose ground in the competitive global marketplace because its employees are working less than those in nations without such a law? This could happen, but if it does, I think the cause won’t be the restrictions themselves, but a general lack of employee motivation to get the best results in the limited work time available to them. And let’s face it, this isn’t something you can legislate.
My husband, who works in academia and spends more time working at home than in the office, commented that “that law would never fly in the US.” He’s probably right. We don’t love government interference here, or really any situation in which citizens are told exactly how to behave. And even if such a law did pass, I don’t see it as enforceable. Companies and employees would just ignore it and continue on their merry way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from France (and Germany’s) experiments.
We can start by asking ourselves the tough questions. How can every organization proactively approach the problem of overwork in a manner consistent with its culture and business requirements? How can managers customize individual solutions while still establishing boundaries that protect employees, who are, for example, overly conscientious or work-obsessed? How can we accept that more hours and greater access is not the way to increased productivity, and how can we get to the heart of what is?