Are laws like the French ban on emails after work, saving us or burying our jobs?

Are laws like the French ban on emails after work, saving us or burying our jobs?

Do you leave work behind when you physically move out of your workplace? Or do the texts, messages, emails keep pulling you back, monopolizing your life beyond work hours? Do you believe that this can get to a point where an individual eventually breaks down?

These questions were answered with a new French labour reform law enforced from January 1 2017. It requires French companies with more than 50 workers to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology after office hours. Companies need to start discussions with employees to define their rights to ignore work related messages. If a deal cannot be reached, the company must publish a charter that would state the demands on, and rights of, employees out-of-hours.

France’s working culture has evolved over the years. A legislation introduced in 2000 to reduce working hours from 39 to 35 per week led to higher employment rates in the country. Unfortunately, the new law does not define penalties for companies that fail to comply with the regulation.

Why was this law needed?

Psychologists have blamed overuse of digital devices for the loss of physical and mental wellbeing – burnout, sleeplessness, and relationship issues are all offshoots of habits formed out of not knowing when to “switch off”. These conditions are harmful not only to employees, but also affect the company in the long term, as employee productivity goes down and health insurance costs rise.

Research shows that more than a third of French workers are connected with work through their devices out-of-hours everyday. Nearly 60% of them have been in favour of a law that would help clarify their rights. On the other hand, office workers in the U.S. work around 47 hours a week on an average.

Another research correlates excessive email communication with stress, distraction, and higher levels of work pressure.

Will this law help maintain work-life balance or is it an assault on freedom?

Technology often creates unrealistic demands on workers’ time – this is not controversial. However, it also plays an important role in providing flexible working hours. Some of us may be willing to work late evenings as it gives us time off in the day to tend to family or household chores. Some like to use their daily commute time to catch up on work. Besides, more and more people are working remotely these days or with colleagues in other time zones. For them to switch off at a particular time of the day may not be practically feasible.

While this law assumes that everyone desires a clear separation of personal and office time but what about the ambitious workers among us who seek to climb the corporate ladder as quickly as possible? For them, perhaps, overtime hours could be an opportunity to learn faster. It could be unfair if their choice to work outside regular hours provokes hostility among others because of this rule.

One seemingly far-fetched, but necessary to highlight consequence of this law could be larger companies moving jobs outside France. It can also impact IT professionals and others in fields where after-work emergencies are frequent.

As of now, we don’t know if there’s a better way out. Some believe that this out-of-office email issue can be addressed through contracts between employees and companies, to give employees a say in the decision making process instead of a blanket ban on communications after office hours. This might give everyone the flexibility they desire while allowing them the freedom to negotiate a policy that suits them.

Can other countries go the French way?

Other countries too have attempted to address the issue of out-of-office work stress. In Japan, Tokyo’s governor has ordered strict monitoring of those working beyond 8pm. A German law forbids managers from contacting employees on vacation. South Korea, known for its gruelling work hours, launched a work-life balance campaign last year to encourage annual leaves.

But despite these examples, most remain skeptical of such a law being passed in other countries, especially the U.S., where long workweeks and foregone vacation time are the norm. In 2015, the French worked an average of 1,482 hours a year, while Americans worked about 1,790 hours. U.S. workers not just get less vacation time than their European counterparts but also end up using only 73% of it.

While companies are sitting up and taking notice of “digital overload” globally, their approach to it differs based on where they are located. In Europe, the solutions offered are protectionist and policy-driven, whereas in the U.S., they lean towards coaching that empowers employees to develop a better relationship with technology. The U.S. Labor Department’s overtime rule, which has been blocked for now, is perhaps the closest the nation has got to responding to the issue of overtime.

Does country culture affect company culture?

Scandinavian countries like Sweden have gone a step further and inculcated a work culture that promotes a six hour work day. People are at their desks between 8.30am and 11.30am, followed by an hour long lunch and then put in another three hours before heading back to their homes in the Swedish mountains as early as 4.3opm!

Denmark has repeatedly topped the World Happiness Rankings and one of the reasons for this is attributed to their work culture. There is substantial trust between individuals in Danish workplaces and a true sense of equality. It is not an uncommon sight to see a CEO of a company cleaning coffee cups so that the custodian doesn’t have to.  This is an indication of the high level of mutual respect between colleagues, regardless of level in an organization.

Such behaviour at work places is usually attributed to Janteloven (the law of Jante), the scandinavian belief of putting society ahead of the individual, not boasting about individual accomplishments or being jealous of others.

On the other side of the globe, in China, entrepreneurs tend to hold the view that they shouldn’t follow in the footsteps of foreign multinationals. They believe in pursuing a ‘Chinese’ way of doing business. This mindset is partly due to the obvious advantages of China’s huge labor force and partly to Chinese business people’s sense of their country’s unique history.

Amy Chua, author of the highly controversial book Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother writes that “Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.” Quite clearly, work cultures across the globe draw a lot from the social aspects in the country.

Can there be a one-size-fits-all global work culture?

It would be difficult to get this going. As we can see from the above examples, a variety of factors play a part in defining how work cultures will evolve in different countries. Making new laws does not necessarily guarantee a reform.

Recently, India passed a new law mandating six months of maternity leave, a big step forward for an economy that has very low rates of female participation in organised sector of the economy. The new policy allowing 26 weeks of paid maternity leave surpasses France’s 16-week leave as well as  14 weeks available in Germany and Japan. Only the UK, Greece, Ireland, the Slovak Republic, and the Czech Republic offer new mothers more paid time off, were UK leads with an entire year’s paid time off for new mothers.  However, in India, more women are employed in the unorganised sectors of the economy and they may never be able to take benefit of the new maternity leave policy.

Ironically, US has no federally assured maternity leave policy inspite of having some of the largest numbers of working women in the world!

In Norway, where the Janteloven way of life has flourished for so long, startups are finding difficult to survive because of the lack of recognition and appreciation of the aspirations of youth to do things differently and on the other hand, Chinese entrepreneurs are embracing western concepts of productivity.

But will this all matter? How the work cultures shape up in future depends on the impact that large scale automation may have and with concepts like Universal Basic Income finding a steady voice, maybe the future where we will be paid to not work does not seem that distant anymore!