Balancing act: French after-hours email ban riles up readers

Published: Tuesday, May 20 2014 8:30 a.m. MDT

Nothing gets your average, hard-working American more riled up than a discussion of European labor laws. And, in particular recently, a new French regulation that attempts to ban after-hours viewing of work emails.

triloks, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Enlarge photo»

Nothing gets your average, hard-working American more riled up than a discussion of European labor laws.

And, in particular, the laws of our friends in France.

This truth was reinforced for me last month after I wrote about a recent article in BBC News Magazine that said the French government was introducing rules "to protect about a million people working in the digital and consultancy sectors from work email outside office hours."

The article said those hours are before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m., and the deal between employer groups 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."

I've written before about my email addiction and my so-far unsuccessful attempts to beat it, so I was intrigued by the intent behind these regulations. But the idea of having government rules dictate when someone can look at work email seemed like a bad idea to me.

Several readers had a similar reaction to this story.

For example, a reader named Tere sent me an email to say her husband owns their business and often receives "really annoying" emails at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. from one particular client.

"The guy is an absolute slave to his business and treats his employees the same," Tere wrote. "He once sent us a FedEx box while we were on vacation in Australia! We were in the outback and couldn't find a box to return it to for a week and had to take it with us. ... By the time we did get it to FedEx it got back to this client a week after we returned from our trip. Oh how I love poetic justice!"

Sounds like this particular client's problems go far beyond email, Tere.

She continues, "I think a voluntary restriction (on after-hours email) would be great by corporations, but please no more federal intrusions into our lives! So sick of the nanny state we are living under."

Another reader, David, wrote in an email that there may be good business reasons for companies to consider instituting their own after-hours email bans.

"It is because checking work email is working time, whether done from the office, home or anywhere," David wrote. "Federal regulations require that employees be paid for time worked, regardless of whether it was approved or authorized.

"I had an employee that I supervised that checked email after her regular office hours, which were 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Most of the office worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., so lots of email was still going on in the late afternoon. Every time she decided to check emails after her working hours, she recorded the time as time worked and our HR department required us to pay her overtime — at time and a half."

It sounds like she figured out how to work the system to her advantage, but rules are rules. I'd be interested to know whether the company eventually asked her to stop checking email after her regular hours and, if so, how she responded. If you're out there, David, let me know.

Several readers also responded to my previous column by posting comments online, and a few of them touted the benefits of the European attitude toward work and life demonstrated by the new French email rules.

"Despite all the naysaying, I think the French and other European countries have it right," wrote one reader identified as "MHughes." "Quality of life is increased far more by the hours spent with friends and family than it is by hours spent at work or by the amount of money and material possessions one has.

"Americans have it backward. Work is a necessary part of life, but we should work to live and not live to work. We would all be much happier if we spent less time at work."

I agree with that sentiment, but I also see value in the drive to be highly productive and successful at work. The question is, where do you draw the line?