Right-to-disconnect law won’t change bad habits
Should a government step in to protect work-life balance and prevent the digital burnout of its citizens? In France the “right to disconnect” law went into effect on Jan. 1.
Introduced by French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, the new law allows employees in companies with more than 50 staff members to disregard emails and smartphones after work hours, usually evenings and weekends. It’s a move the government says will “ensure the respect of rest time and vacation, as well as personal and family life.”
France already has a strong web of employment laws and legislation, including a five-week annual vacation and a 35-hour work week.
This new law aims to preserve what remains of the disintegrating boundary between professional and personal life.
“Employees physically leave the office,” French Socialist MP Benoit Hamon explained to the BBC in May, “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 colonise the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”
Certainly, it’s a welcome acknowledgement of the increased work-related stress that comes with the ubiquity of new technology that the French — like citizens in other countries — are experiencing in our modern world. But it will take more than government intervention to change our collective tech-obsessed behaviour, and the encroachment of emails and smartphones into our personal lives.
The law is terrific in principle. Let’s see how it works in practice.
For one thing, there is no penalty for violating the “right to disconnect” law. Companies are expected to comply voluntarily. The reality is that new information technologies have challenged our fixed concepts of time and space, blurred the lines between work and leisure, day and night. In many industries, the notion that employees must operate within a traditional paradigm of fixed 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. working hours and physical offices is becoming obsolete. This is particularly true for those in the millennial generation.
Many businesses are in communication and competition with companies all around the world. Business hours in different time zones don’t always match up.
It may seem hard to believe, but 2017 marks just the 10th anniversary of the commercial smartphone. In that time, use of these devices has risen at a meteoric pace. In Canada, for example, a recent survey found that in 2014, 55 per cent of Canadians owned a smartphone. Just two years later in 2016, that number blew up to 76 per cent. In other words, three out of every four Canadians owned a smartphone last year.
These devices have changed the way we work. Today, the office follows many people wherever they go and meets them wherever they are.
A 2014 study conducted at the University of British Columbia found people who constantly scan their email throughout the day are more likely to experience higher levels of stress and tension. It suggests that limiting the frequency of checking email to three times a day reduced daily stress. The average person checks email around 15 times a day.
Some have argued smartphones are addictive by design. Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google and now a founder of the Time Well Spent movement calls it the “slot machine in your pocket.” He looks at how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. He writes that the average person checks their phone about 150 times a day.
Government intervention like what we’re seeing in France is welcome, but unfortunately, it’s never going to be the only answer.