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Ban the email: The ultimate cure for employee burnout?

June 10, 2016

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE
Author: Anthony Kaylin

Today we do ever more with ever less, and we expect every one of our employees to embrace that philosophy. But what is the effect of it on their personal lives?

The French government worries about that question and is taking a step to do something about it. It is considering amending its labor law to require employers with 50 or more employees to establish a charter of good conduct, which in part is supposed to lay out the times when employees will not be allowed to send or answer emails. It embraces the “right to disconnect.”

This is not a new concept in France.  In 2014, a labor agreement was signed by unions covering 250,000 “autonomous employees” (the equivalent of exempt employees in the U.S.) and employers in the high-tech and consulting field.  The agreement bases work on days, not hours. The agreement provided for a couple of employee rights such as “obligation to disconnect communications tools,” but only after an employee has worked a 13-hour day, or one day of rest for every seven days of work.

But now the government is attempting to enshrine a more liberal version of the “obligation to disconnect” into a law that will apply across the board.

The French government, which long ago enshrined the 35-hour workweek, believes that the email ban is necessary for employees to have normal lives. It sees electronic connectivity as an addiction that is out of control. “All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant,” says Socialist MP Benoit Hamon.  He continues by stating that “[e]mployees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails – they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

Another consultant frames the issue in France as one of normality.  “At home the workspace can be the kitchen or the bathroom or the bedroom. We shift from a work email to a personal WhatsApp to a Facebook picture to a professional text – all on the same tool,” says Linh Le, a partner at Elia management consultants in Paris.  “You’re at home but you’re not at home, and that poses a real threat to relationships,” she says. 

The law is expected to pass. Some employers have already embraced the practice, such as “no email Fridays.” But, ironically in the light of French society’s well-known reputation for joi de vivre, plenty of French workers oppose the measure. One French software developer put it this way: “I think [the right to disconnect] is wonderful for improving the human condition but totally inapplicable . . . In my company we compete with Indian, Chinese, American developers. We need to talk to people around the world late into the night. Our competitors don’t have the same restrictions.  If we obeyed this law we would just be shooting ourselves in the foot.”  At PriceMinister, Sales Manager Tiphanie Schmitt likes the Friday ban on emails to encourage more physical social interaction, but she would resist any government interference in the way she does her job. How American of her!

In America, whose new FLSA exempt regulations will likely reduce its population of exempt employees, the Department of Labor plans to ask for comments to the question of electronic devices in the workplace.  Specifically, “The Department is publishing a Request for Information (RFI) to gather information about employees’ use of electronic devices to perform work outside of regularly scheduled work hours and away from the workplace, as well as information regarding ‘last minute’ scheduling practices being utilized by some employers that are made possible in large part by employees’ use of these devices.”  The RFI is scheduled out in this July.

One can see in that RFI the first stirrings of a government push to provide relief to employees from electronic device fatigue. Wise employers will start thinking now about ways to address the problem before a government-imposed solution which is neither efficient nor convenient arrives on the scene. They will review their electronic device policies to consider what kinds of restrictions may be reasonable to adopt or not. They will also review, once again, their electronic recordkeeping and email retention policies. With the uptick in disputes over overtime pay expected once the new standard for exempt employment kicks in in December, it is not far-fetched to imagine the government coming up with new regulations limiting the use of electronic communication devices outside of regular work hours.

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