Balancing act: French ban on after-hours email raises work-life questions
Sergey Borisov, Getty Images/iStockphoto
Americans have been known to scoff at what we see as a lack of work ethic among Europeans.
This especially seems to hold true when we talk about the French, with their 35-hour workweeks and long annual vacations.
How can they get anything done when they always seem to be more focused on their time away from work than their time in the office?
This is such a common perception that it serves as a running gag in the new movie "Muppets Most Wanted." In it, the investigative work of Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon, played by Ty Burrell, is repeatedly interrupted by mandatory breaks, the end of the workday and a family vacation, frustrating American CIA agent Sam the Eagle.
Sam's growing anger at his partner's constant distractions is sure to draw knowing smiles and nods from the average U.S. workers, who are confident that their long days at the office and after-hours work at home are at least making them more productive than any possible competitors in France.
However, a recent change in French work regulations has me thinking that they might have a good idea when it comes to email and work-life balance.
According to a recent article by Tom de Castella of BBC News Magazine, France has "introduced rules to protect about a million people working in the digital and consultancy sectors from work email outside office hours. Those are taken to be before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. The deal signed between employers federations and unions says that employees will have to switch off work phones and avoid looking at work email, while firms cannot pressure staff to check messages."
You read that right. The French are so serious about keeping people from checking work email after hours that they're actually passing regulations to prevent it.
This was especially interesting to me in light of a column I wrote a few weeks ago about the email addiction I seem to share with many other Americans.
In that piece, I cited one recent survey in which 58 percent of respondents said reading email was their first task each day. (I'm one of those people, checking email before I even get out of bed each morning.) But in a different survey in which people were asked what their biggest complaints were about email, 33 percent of respondents said they received too much.
It's clear that many U.S. workers are drowning in email, and some of us let it occupy our time whether we're at the office or at home. Could it be that the best way to fight this addiction would be to regulate it away?
The BBC News Magazine article talks about this possibility.
"In December 2011, Volkswagen announced that servers would stop sending emails 30 minutes after the end of employees' shifts, and only start again half an hour before the person returned to work," de Castella writes in the BBC piece. "Their move was followed by Germany's labour ministry.
"In the (United Kingdom) there is protection for many types of worker in the form of the Working Time Regulations, but the (Trade Union Congress) argues this simply doesn't cover out-of-hours email. And there are exemptions for categories of worker like lawyers and doctors."
In other words, even if such regulations were implemented in Britain — or the U.S., for that matter — it's likely that not everyone would be covered.
"Disruptive email is mainly a white-collar problem," the BBC piece continues. "It goes with the territory for certain jobs, such as lawyer or financier, where staff are managing their own time. But others further down the hierarchy working on fixed hours contracts are perhaps also in need of protection."
Some jobs do seem to require constant communication in today's business world. I hope the people who hold those occupations went into them with their eyes open to that reality and can still find a way to create balanced lives.
For people who don't have those kinds of jobs, a ban on after-hours email might be a good and helpful thing. If workers knew they weren't going to miss anything if they ignored their smartphones after work, they might be more willing to leave them at home — or at least look at them less frequently — while spending time with their families or building balance in other ways.
However, I think the chances of similar government regulations gaining approval in America are somewhere between slim and none. And frankly, I'm OK with that. While I'm a true believer in work-life balance, I don't think it's something that should be mandated by the government at such a micro level.
I do think businesses should take a close look at their corporate cultures and decide whether a ban on after-hours email — maybe even a limited ban for certain classes of employees — would work for them.
In order for such a plan to work, the corporate culture change would have to start at the top. As long as executives and managers are sending after-hours email, lower-ranking employees are going to feel like they have to reply.
I'm not sure many U.S. companies have the will to make that kind of change. Even though I'm a work-life balance advocate, I would have a hard time at first adjusting to such a ban.
But I also believe that, if I did adjust, I might realize significant improvement in my work-life balance — and my life in general.
I'm interested to hear what you think about this issue. What is your reaction to the French regulations regarding after-hours email? Do you think similar government action should be considered in America? Or would you support private companies that tried to implement such a ban?
Send me an email or leave a comment online with your ideas, and I'll share some of them when I revisit this issue in a future column.
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