'A right to disconnect'? France proposes ignoring work emails after hours

The French government plans to propose a new business regulations including a 'right to disconnect' so workers can refuse to check emails outside the office.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters/File
A French baker prepares loaves of bread dough for baguettes in Strasbourg, Aug. 6, 2010. In a country known for a statutory 35-hour work week and a generous work-life balance, the government is set to propose reforms, including the 'right to disconnect.'

Firing off work updates over cheese souffle could soon become passé in France, as the government is considering its defense to technology's attack on its famed work-life balance.

The "right to disconnect" over le dîner – a ban on requiring email replies after work hours – is part of a package of labor reforms that France hopes will reinvigorate its flagging economy while defending French culture from technological encroachment, Sandrine Amiel and Alanna Petroff reported for CNN.

The email ban, along with reforms to the controversial 35-hour work week, are part of a draft bill leaked by the French newspaper Le Parisien. France's unique business regulations have already made it a tricky place for investment, and the bill aims to bolster the struggling economy with reforms to be implemented in July 2017.

But not at the expense of the French work-life balance. 

French unions say digital technology has effectively destroyed the 35-hour work week and created an "explosion of undeclared labor" that should be tempered with a "disconnect" rule, CNN reported. 

"The law is late in comparison with corporate realities," Jean-Luc Molins, the head of the UGITC-CGT union for engineers and technical workers, told CNNMoney.

The flurry of emails in the evening – and even into the wee hours – has become familiar for many in the United States. In a CareerBuilder survey of 1,000 American office-based workers, half said they regularly respond to work emails outside the office, with 24 percent checking work emails even during activities with family and friends.

Most American workers said they stayed connected by design, with 70 percent of workers over age 55 and 56 percent of millennials saying the choice to check email at home is theirs. 

If this is true, France's solution may not prove popular on this side of the Atlantic. Work psychologist and author Ron Friedman suggested in an op-ed for CNN that companies give employees more flexibility to selectively leave work for personal needs, since work already encroaches freely on personal time:

Just ask Patagonia, a successful outdoor clothing manufacturer. Employees at the company's California headquarters are empowered to set their own hours, given access to an on-site daycare and invited to take regular breaks during the day for exercise....

Over the past five years, Patagonia's profits have tripled, while employee turnover has dropped to a fraction of the industry average. As for employee satisfaction? In the words of Billy Smith, a 26-year-old Patagonia product tester, "Landing this job was probably the best thing that ever happened to me."

In France, employers are already instituting their own "disconnect" bans, with some even shutting down email servers at night. Frederic Lafage, director of a French engineering firm, told CNN that workers were more productive after a good evening's rest.

Proponents of the new bill say that it represents a good start, and that they will keep looking for ways to protect high-level workers from the burn-out of constant connection, reported the French newspaper The Local.

"One of the biggest risks is the balance of a private life and professional life behind this permanent connectivity," Bruno Mettling, director general of mobile giant Orange and the author of the report upon which the law is based, told The Local. 

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