France Wins Fight for ‘Right to Disconnect’

Worker using a smartphone

The French government granted workers the right to not answer phone calls from their bosses or check work e-mails while at home or on vacation. The so-called ‘right to disconnect’ was enforced on January 1. Labor minister Myriam El Khomri, who pushed for the measure, explained the move is part of a larger set of labor laws. The minister added the new rules will apply only to companies that have more than 50 workers.

The Rules Target the ‘Always ON’ Work Culture

Under the new legislation, these companies will have to issue a charter of good conduct. If the charter cannot be enforced, the government requests from firms to be very explicit on what they expect from their workers out of work hours.

In 2000, French workers won the right to a 35-hour working week but in the meantime, many of them dealt with work emails and phone calls outside work hours without being paid. Critics claim these “hidden hours” are a modern version of slavery. The new rules are expected to curb the “always-on” culture countrywide.

Earlier this year, a study from the French think tank Eleas revealed that over 33% of the country’s workforce uses their mobile devices for after-hours work tasks. In a poll, 60% of respondents said they would back the right to disconnect or at least the right to clarify things before landing a job. Health experts underlined the connection between the work culture and high levels of stress, sleep deprivation, burnouts, and relationship issues.

One workplace expert at the research firm Aristat explained why workers cannot simply turn off their electronic devices while at home or on holiday. Many workers cannot just do that because they don’t want to lose the flexibility mobile devices grants them. The expert hopes companies would see the new measures as a means of protection.

Some companies understand on their own that their workers need to have a work-family life balance to function properly. For instance, car maker Daimler instructed workers on vacation to automatically delete all work-related emails instead of sending an out-of-hours reply. In addition, Volkswagen automatically shuts down servers after hours.

America Very Unlikely to Follow Suit

So, some experts argue this is not just a French whim. It is a basic human right not to work when not getting paid. However, it is highly unlikely America will follow suit anytime soon.

Americans may argue that the French are just lazy. According to official data, the U.S. ranks the third on the list featuring the most productive countries in the world. By contrast, France occupies the 6th spot ahead of Germany (7th spot), the U.K. (13th) and even Japan (21st).

So, what makes the French so productive despite low input? Experts think it is the way they manage to achieve the work-family balance. Unlike Americans, the French do not perceive family as just a leftover of their existence. French people value their family more than they value work. So, for them, it is more important to attend that family dinner than ensure a spreadsheet is finished on time.

What’s more, for the French, leisure time is not just a means to recharge batteries ahead of another work week. It is an end unto itself.
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