Picture the scene: You arrive at work in the morning and your colleagues are verbally continuing an email thread from the night before where they were all discussing the progress of a project and the allocation of tasks pertaining to said project.
You went out for dinner with your wife and kids.
You’ve no idea what they’re talking about and suddenly you feel lost, unable to contribute and somehow cast aside.
Your crime? Simply not reading your emails while you were having some QT with the fam.
It hardly makes you villain of the century but it does raise an increasingly important question.
Are we expected to be online and available 24 hours a day?
Well, Are We?
It’s hard to say. For millions of employees up and down the country (and likely in every other country), the compulsive need to check and respond to email and other forms of office communication outside of usual office hours has, sadly, become the norm. We’re now unsure as to when – or even if – we should switch off.
We might be unsure but the French aren’t. A new employment law came into force on January 1st 2017 that, says Agence France-Presse, ‘obliges organisations with more than 50 workers to start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their smartphones.’
In 2015, France’s Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri commissioned a report warning of the health impacts of what she beautifully called ‘info-obesity’ and this is the result.
The French government are determined to tackle the modern-day scourge of the ‘always on’ culture. Study after study tells us that the overuse of our phones, computers and tablets can be blamed for fatigue, sleeplessness, burnout and even relationship problems. Being glued to your phone all night instead of talking to your husband or wife will eventually take its toll…
Just last week in what is believed to be the first ruling of its kind since the law was passed, the French division of British firm Rentokil Initial was ordered to pay €60,000 (£53,000) to a former employee because, according to Henry Samuel writing in The Telegraph ‘it failed to respect his “right to disconnect” from his phone and computer outside office hours.’
He continues, ‘In its decision dated July 12, France’s Supreme Court found it unfair for the unnamed ex-employee, a former South West regional director of the company in France, to have to “permanently leave his telephone on…to respond to requests from his subordinates or customers” in case of any problems while not at work.’
The employee took the company to a tribunal seeking compensation for the extra hours he was ‘on call’ and the court ruled in his favour. It was a landmark case and one that has reverberated around Europe’s halls of corporate power.
Hugh Schofield for the BBC put is slightly more bluntly; ‘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 colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.’
The City That Never Sleeps Can Now Sleep…(Maybe)
Along with France, Italy, Germany and The Philippines introducing similar measures, the city that never sleeps may finally be able to get some well-earned rest. Councilman Rafael Espinal introduced the Right to Disconnect Bill in New York, proposing a ban on private companies with 10 or more employees requiring their staff to respond to electronic messages outside of their working hours.
They can be contacted, but can’t be disciplined for not responding. ‘The lines between our work and personal lives have blurred. My bill will simply protect employees from retaliation when they choose to disconnect.’
What Are The Threats?
It will come as no shock that people with precious little downtime are less productive, less creative and therefore less profitable to the business. ‘You’re at home, but you’re not at home’, says Linh Le, a Paris-based management consultant.
Le says the businesses she advises are increasingly aware of the dangers to staff, the most extreme of which is burnout. While the French are perhaps stereotypically known for their 35-hour weeks and long holidays, in fact their hourly productivity – when the out-of-hours work is taken into account – is higher than the stereotypically industrious Germans.
And it’s not just the French taking action…
Volkswagen – In 2011 following complaints, VW stopped some of their Blackberry (remember them?) servers from sending emails to employees after their shifts had finished.
Daimler – When staff were on holiday, emails were automatically returned to their senders with a ‘mail on holiday’ message with a contact to another member of staff. Interestingly, the company said the employees were free to use it or not but wouldn’t be penalised if they did. We wonder how many did…
Areva – The French nuclear power company launched an educational campaign asking employees not to send emails between 8pm and 8am or on days off.
Axa – The insurance company now no longer requires employees to reply to emails sent outside of office hours.
The list goes on.
Britain’s government have enough to be getting on with at the moment so it’s unlikely that we’ll have ‘right to disconnect’ law anytime soon but with all these things, we don’t need a law to tell us that ‘info-obesity’ is a thing and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Most forward-thinking companies recognise that there are boundaries between work life and home life and there are plenty who are leading the way with their own in-house initiatives but naturally there has to be a balance. A law banning emails between 7pm and 7am would be fine for an estate agent but not great for an event planner which means that businesses have to be flexible rather than go for a catch-all solution.
Ultimately it’s about learning new habits as well as giving already overworked employees the confidence to set their own boundaries, and who among us doesn’t want to feel less fatigued and more productive?
It’s a textbook win-win. The business gets a creative, enthusiastic and engaged workforce and the workforce gets a business that genuinely cares about their well-being.
Have a good week.