Should you be checking your office emails and messages after work hours? The debate continues.
How often should we be checking our email after work hours? The French have passed a law to limit how much bosses can ask of their staff – but what can the rest of us do? Colin Drury finds out
It is a feeling that too many of us are familiar with: just as we sit down to relax for the evening, our mobile pings and an urgent work email arrives.
Should we read it? Should we answer it? Should we do the spreadsheet it’s asking for because, after all, we’ll be busy on other tasks tomorrow?
More than a third of us reckon we have faced this dilemma. Some 36 per cent of employees say they regularly receive messages or calls from their bosses out of office hours. One in every 10 workers, according to the 2013 survey by global recruitment giant Manpower, reckon even their annual leave has been interrupted by professional demands.
‘The only time I suppose I truly log off is when I go to sleep,’ says Andreas*, a consultant with a major international IT firm. ‘Other than that, there is an unspoken expectation within the company that you’re constantly aware of what’s coming in and available to deal with anything that has a certain level of importance.’
It is a universal phenomenon caused by the growth of mobile devices, which puts us always in reach. But it is also a phenomenon that, experts say, is particularly pronounced in the UAE.
The personal professional drive of many employees here; the innate ambition of the country’s business sector; and the fact that so many firms deal across global time zones – from Asia in the east to the US in the west – all mean a culture has developed where staff are expected, to a greater or lesser extent, to be available whenever needed.
‘There’s that cliché that you work hard and play hard in the UAE,’ says Andreas, who arrived from Germany four years ago. ‘That’s true. But I know, for me personally – and a lot of friends – even when you’re “playing”, you’re always aware you could be called on at any moment. You never switch off.’
But is this expectation on staff fair? Is the blurring of lines between work and personal space healthy – either for the individual or for the company itself? And, perhaps most importantly, in a year when the French government has enacted a ‘right to disconnect’ law, which will limit the emails workers can receive out of hours, should staff here in the UAE also be looking to reaffirm their rights to log offline?
Andreas was on annual leave when he first realised the level of expectation
that came with an internal promotion. ‘I was visiting family back in Europe,’ he says. ‘And in 11 days off, I had to answer emails on seven of them and spend a couple of separate mornings dealing with a pretty major client about new software that was being introduced.
‘I was new to the job and it was sort of implied it was a busy period and it would be appreciated if I went above and beyond. But it’s been 18 months now and that busy period has never ended.’
He doesn’t mind most of the time, he says. He accepts it is part of being paid well. But, just occasionally, he wonders if his bosses aren’t taking advantage? After a year and a half, he feels that such constant connection is taking its toll.
‘I’m not a whiner – come on, I’m German,’ he smiles. ‘But I have noticed I don’t sleep so well, and I think maybe I snap more than I did. My temper seems shorter.’ He is, it seems, far from alone. Overuse of digital devices – particularly those connected with professional lives – is increasingly blamed for all manner of modern ills. Burnout, stress, insomnia, obesity and even faltering relationships have all been named as consequences of being continually plugged in. The need to always be alert has been shown to impair the body’s immune system, meaning it can lead to feelings of being generally rundown and fatigued.
Too many employees, argues French lawmaker Benoit Hamon, ‘leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog.’ It is for this reason that, last month, France enacted its ‘right to disconnect’ law. Under this ruling, companies are obliged to ensure work emails do not unnecessarily intrude into employees’ private lives. Firms will be required to publish a charter making explicit both the expectations from, and rights of, their staff out-of-hours.
For Amelie Zegmout, a French citizen working for a French multinational in the UAE, this legislation is undoubtedly a positive thing.
As general manager at Legrand, which supplies electrical systems to the construction industry, she both receives out-of-hours emails from her bosses, and admits sending messages to her staff too. She will regularly still be dealing with her inbox at 10pm.
‘I should make clear I do not feel obliged to do this by the company, there is no expectation,’ says the 36-year-old, who has lived in Dubai for 18 years. ‘It is a choice because, for instance, when I am dealing with the head office in France, it is easier to have email exchanges or make conference calls during French office hours. Or, when you are working with customers in the UAE, these are big clients and they have big demands, and that sometimes means having to deal with queries quickly.’
Nonetheless, she thinks a law reducing email use could improve work-life balance. ‘One of the reasons you deal with customers when they have certain demands is because if you don’t, a competitor might,’ she says. ‘If that differential was taken away there would be less pressure on everyone to work out of hours.
‘It’s about society restructuring expectations and culture. And, actually, I think that would very much fit in with
‘It is about society RESTRUCTURING expectations and CULTURE. And that would very much fit in with the HAPPINESS initiatives, which are a PRIORITY in the UAE’