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?
Another online comment addressed that.
"As an American living and working in Norway for the last 10 years, I'm conflicted by the work ethic I grew up with and the one in the society of which I am a part," wrote a reader identified as "rj." "I get frustrated by my Norwegian colleagues' general aversion to work, yet at the same time I enjoy having more time off than my overworked American counterparts. Unfortunately, there seems to be no happy medium.
"If I had to pick one, I would stick with the European model for health reasons. But you do surrender some rights in the process. Your perspective on the matter depends on what's more important to you. Is it health and well-being? Productivity? Pride of having a 'strong work ethic'? Family time? Most people can't have it all."
Finally, a reader identified as "UtahBlueDevil" wrote that Americans tend to make inaccurate generalizations when talking about European workers, and the result is misunderstanding and "silliness."
"No one in France is saying you can't look at your email, or respond to a voice mail on your phone. What a silly notion," this reader posted online. "What they are saying is your employer can't make you monitor your email at 10 p.m. They can't insist you check your voice mail or respond to calls on Sunday. I am so amused by those who love to take these things to their silly extremes .
"France is much maligned by American ignorance. But ask the people up in Seattle if their competitors at Airbus are 'lazy.' Ask the people (at) GE if those at Schneider (Electric) are slackers. Silliness."3 comments on this story
This reader makes an excellent point about the dangers of generalization. However, I still believe there are clear differences between the European and American attitudes toward work.
What I think we need to do is spend more time exploring what works for people in other cultures, and why. I love my country, but I don't believe we possess all knowledge and wisdom when it comes to work-life balance, or anything else for that matter. Rather, I believe the United States offers a unique place to experiment on what we learn from others and, hopefully, build on their ideas to make them even better.
What do you think? I'd love to hear more feedback on this issue, so please send me an email or leave a comment with your thoughts, and I'll share more of them in a future column.