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The Right to Disconnect Could Be 2017’s Newest Work Trend

Shut it down.

Off Lining

On January 1, the French government officially enacted the “El Khomri laws”, a sweeping set of labor reforms intended to ease the country’s 10.3% unemployment rate.

While the legislation largely escaped notice in the States, it was a minor proviso in the bill – “the right to disconnect” – that sent many Americans’ hearts, and pens, aflutter.

The newly minted droit means that French companies with more than 50 employees are obligated to set out-of-office hours when staffers cannot send, or reply to, digital communications.

“The development of information and communication technologies, if badly managed or regulated, can have an impact on the health of workers,” Article 25 of “The Adaptation of Work Rights to the Digital Era” states. “Among them, the burden of work and the informational overburden, the blurring of the borders between private life and professional life, are risks associated with the usage of digital technology.”

In France, the right to disconnect was overshadowed by the accompanying labor laws, which many perceive as hostile to workers. The reforms were met with massive protests, as well as some rioting, in Paris, Nantes, Toulouse, and elsewhere.

Here, the law was met with gentle mockery of the French work ethic, barely concealed envy, and a few ideological aneurysms – Conservative Review declared the law “an assault on freedom”.

(NB: the myth of the spoiled, unproductive French worker is just that – a myth. Despite a robust set of worker guarantees – a 35-hour work week and minimum 16-week maternity leave among them – French workers are more productive than their UK and American counterparts.)

Americans are not immune to seeking legal remedy for the after-hours email epidemic. In 2010, more than fifty police officers filed a class-action lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department, seeking “overtime pay for off-duty hours spent monitoring and responding to work emails and phone calls on their company-issued mobile devices.”

A federal judge ruled against the officers in December, 2015, although the group plans to appeal.

Recent attempts to frame the after-hours email as a public health problem have found better traction.

Studies confirm that email adds more stress to our daily lives, and there’s little doubt that people who check work email outside of the office often suffer for their habit.

A 2015 research report from the U.K.’s Future Work Centre found that those who monitor email in off-hours experience higher stress and less work-life satisfaction. “Higher email pressure was associated with more examples of work negatively impacting home life and home life negatively impacting performance at work,” they found.

Companies on both sides of the Atlantic also introduced limited email bans “because of [email’s] drag on workplace efficiency and worker wellbeing.”

In 2008, Intel experimented with Tuesday morning “quiet times”, in which 300 engineers and managers set their email and IM clients to offline, as well as “No Email Fridays”. Despite finding wide-spread support, it’s unclear if the company continued the pilot program.

And in 2012, Volkswagen cut a deal with a German labor union to prevent its servers from sending email to employees when they are off-shift.

As Lauren Collins at The New Yorker writes, “A recent study of American workers found that sixty-seven per cent had experienced ‘phantom rings’ – they were worried that someone was trying to get in touch with them, even when they were theoretically free. The right to disconnect, then, isn’t a French problem, but rather a French response to one with which we are all grappling.”

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