France gives workers the “right to disconnect”, but is the volume of emails we send the real issue?

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Business owners and operators are increasingly aware of the value of their employees finding the right balance between work commitments and their personal life. From increased productivity to keeping stress levels in check, a work-life balance has benefits for both employees and employers.

While individual businesses have chosen to make answering emails after hours a no-go zone, the French government has gone one step further, instigating a new measure in the country’s labour laws that grants workers a so-called “right to disconnect”.

Read more: Does your email inbox define your productivity?

According to The New York Times, the measure does not impose an outright ban on after-hours work emails but instead requires employers with more than 50 employees to develop a protocol to ensure work does not impinge on employees after they go home for the day or on their days off.

“Employees are more and more connected during hours outside of the office,” said French labour minister Myriam El Khomri, when explaining the law, which came into effect on January 1.

“The boundary between professional and personal life has become tenuous.”

The “protocol” established by companies could take a variety of forms, including setting times during which employees are not expected to reply to emails, or limiting the use of “reply all” email functions so only those who need to reply are sent the message.

Alan McDonald, managing director of law firm McDonald Murholme, describes the French law as “a good example of change geared towards improving employee living standards and family life, at no cost to the employer”.

“Responsible employers have recognised for a very long time that good work-life balance attracts the best employees into their workforce,” he told SmartCompany.

“It gives longevity of service and it ensures high performance.”

In Australia, Murholme says employers may be in breach of workplace laws if they “surreptitiously” extend work hours by expecting their employees to respond to messages at all hours, but he says one option could be to provide time in lieu to employees that are required to work more than reasonable hours of overtime.

However, not all commentators are in favour of France’s legislative approach to work-life balance.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Michael Mankins, a partner at global consultancy firm Bain & Company, argues the time emails are sent is not the problem, but rather it is the volume of electronic messages that are exchanged in most businesses that is the top concern.

“There is little doubt that unnecessary e-communications is costly, not just to the individual employees but to society at large,” Mankins says. “It contributes to employee burnout and lost productivity. “

“But legal mandates focused on the symptoms, rather than the cause, of excessive emails are likely to have little effect.

“It’s time for leaders to take responsibility for the load they put on the organisation and to take steps to change the way work gets done on the job. Only then will employees be able to successfully cut the leash and focus their previous time on delivering great results.”

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Vaughn Dumas
4 years ago

I do not think the problem is with the amount of emails. Many folks have one email address for work and another for non-work related matter.

The problem comes in where there is an expectation that emails be attended to (either read and acknowledged or actual work to be done). Where there is an expectation, staff may feel uncomfortable NOT checking email, which then causes stress and problems at home.

I rather suggest that companies of 50+ create a standby list of staff members that can be contacted after hours: of course, being on the standby list does mean you get paid for it.