France enshrines workers' right to ignore bosses' emails

With the turn of the new year, France has rolled out a law that gives workers the 'right to disconnect' from after-work digital correspondence. Can the protection help them to relax at home?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
The business district of Paris is alive during lunch time on a sunny spring day in 2014. As of 2017, French workers will have the legal protection to ignore digital correspondence outside of work hours.

In France, workers will start the year with a new right: the protection to ignore their bosses' weekend emails.

As of Jan. 1, France has enacted a law that gives its workers a legal right to ignore emails and digital correspondence from coworkers and bosses when out of the office. Dubbed the "right to disconnect," the new law mandates that companies must negotiate with their employees to agree on terms of communication, a move that officials hope will redefine the blurring line between work and leisure.

As technology has rapidly changed the workplace and expectations, more office workers have seen their schedules and expectations shift. Today, many believe the 9-to-5 job is becoming less of a reality, with more taking on freelance work or salaried jobs with loosely defined schedules.

And while flexibility may "help [employees] build a better work/life balance," Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer of CareerBuilder, previously told The Christian Science Monitor, shifting work norms carry the possibility that "the boundaries between work and personal lives can blur, which can cause stress."

The average US office worker now clocks around 47 hours a week, and 17 percent have said they have trouble finding enough work-life balance to enjoy leisure activities without distractions from work.

In France, where a 35-hour workweek is the protected norm, intrusions from employers via digital communications became troublesome, leading legislators to pass the new law in May.

"All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant," Socialist MP Benoit Hamon told the BBC in May. "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."

If workers and their employers cannot come to a compromise, the company must then publish a charter that specifically states the expectations for workers out of the office. Still, the law lacks any defined sanctions for companies that fail to define employment terms or abide by the after-hours rule.

Many remain skeptical that such a law could work in other countries, including the United States, where longer workweeks and less vacation time are the norm.

"Here in France we speak of the two types of time, as defined by the Greeks: chronos and keiros. Chronos is regular, divisible time. Keiros is unconscious time … creative time,” Linh Le, a partner at Elia management consultants in Paris, told the BBC. "Keiros is essential for productive thinking, and good employers know they need to protect it."

Still, others hope that putting the provisions on paper will foster awareness about the importance of being present at home and dialogue about flexibility and expectations surrounding the workplace.

"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,' " Anna Cox a work-life balance expert at University College London, told The Guardian, who notes the law could encourage "conversations with people working together about what their expectations are."

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