Annoyed by off-hour work emails? They may soon be illegal in Germany.

High-productivity Germany already bans contact with employees during holidays. Trying to get in touch with workers outside of business hours may soon be verboten too.

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters/File
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (r.) and her husband Joachim Sauer hike on their annual summer vacation in the northern Italian Alpine mountain resort of Sulden in South Tyrol, in August 2013.

Labor Day represents the last precious day of summer before getting back to the grind. But that assumes we ever left the grind in the first place.

For many in the US, the ubiquity of email and other forms of e-communication means we're never really off the job – and we'll respond to emails from coworkers and bosses at even the most off of hours. How many Americans are even working today, despite it being a national holiday to celebrate the social achievements of the US worker movement?

You might not even consider opening your inbox it if you were German. Despite their reputation as zealots of productivity and industriousness, Germans enjoy a much better work-life balance than their American counterparts.

And now Germany’s labor minister, Andrea Nahles, is considering new “anti-stress” legislation, which could ban companies from contacting employees outside of work hours, reports the Guardian. She told the local press last week: “There is an undeniable relationship between constant availability and the increase of mental illness.”

It’s already illegal in Germany to contact staff on holidays – like Labor Day – and the move announced by the labor minister follows the path blazed by the private sector. Daimler, for example, made news in early August – at the height of vacation season – by offering a program to employees called “Mail on Holiday” that automatically deletes emails when they are on vacation.

“The idea behind it is to give people a break and let them rest,” Daimler spokesman Oliver Wihofszki told Time magazine. “Then they can come back to work with a fresh spirit.” 

When a similar idea was floated in France among a federation of employees and unions, it led to misleading headlines about the French banning emails after 6 p.m. (not true) and mockery in the foreign press. One reader of the Times of London wrote in: “The French really do appear to be keen on pressing the self destruct button. What business would want to locate in France?”

But even if the Germans are the first to lambast France’s 35-hour work week, their ideas about out-of-office access seem to have resonated – not in mockery of German “laziness” but approval of a certain humanity. In a piece in the German English daily The Local, one writer celebrated Germany’s trend towards human working hours and blasted the “American way” with tongue in cheek. “One day we'll figure out the key to the uniquely American workplace secrets where massive amounts of overtime=work ethic and taking vacation=slacker. Then and only then will we reach our true potential.” 

And Clive Thompson opines in The New York Times that the American workforce has something to learn from the German trend toward limits.

Workers don’t even take a break during dinner — where, other research shows, fully 38 percent check work email “routinely,” peeking at the phone under the table. Half check it in bed in the morning.  What agonizes workers is the expectation that they’ll reply instantly to a colleague or boss, no matter how ungodly the hour. Hence the endless, neurotic checking, and the dread of getting in trouble for ignoring something.

He asks: “If this can happen in precision-mad, high-productivity Germany, could it happen in the United States? Absolutely. It not only could, but it should.”

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