WORK/LIFE

Friday - - Contents -

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’

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