How to enjoy France’s right-to-disconnect law without living in France

In search of better balance.
In search of better balance.
Image: Reuters/Vincent Kessler
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In a bid to restore some semblance of work-life balance, French companies with more than 50 employees are now required to guarantee workers the “right to disconnect” from technology when they leave the office at night.

The law, which took effect Jan. 1 and has unclear enforcement provisions, makes it obligatory for qualifying firms to “start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their smartphones,” the AFP writes. It’s part of a raft of new measures introduced in May 2016 that make it easier for French companies to hire and fire workers, an effort to reduce the country’s 10% unemployment rate. While the bills have provoked outcry from labor advocates, the disconnection law has drawn wide support.

It may seem ironic that country with a mandated 35-hour workweek and extra-long holidays is clamoring for additional downtime. But France deserves kudos for addressing what everyone else ignores: The blurring of work and home life is messing us up. We carry our work with us everywhere, via laptops and smartphones and WiFi. And while that’s made some things easier, it has simultaneously forced us to be instantly and always accessible. This “forever on” culture leaves little time to disconnect and reboot, leading to increased levels of worker burnout, stress, and damaged relationships.

“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work,” French politician Benoit Hamon told the BBC. “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.”

French companies aren’t the only ones drawing boundaries around the demands of email. As of 2011, Volkswagen’s servers don’t send or receive emails from company-owned smartphones between 6:15pm and 7am on weekdays and weekends (though the policy applies only to full-time employees with union-negotiated contracts in Germany, and not senior management). In 2012, Atos CEO Thierry Breton announced plans to ban all internal email after a “Wellbeing at Work” program found that employees spent 15 to 20 hours a week answering and deleting emails. In 2013, Germany’s labor minister limited after-hours communication in her department to “exceptional cases.” And in 2014, Germany’s Daimler set up “mail on holiday,” which lets employees opt to have their emails deleted while on vacation.

What can you do?

Short of moving to France, most of us aren’t getting a 35-hour workweek or time off from email anytime soon.

But we can draw our own limits. Huffington Post founder and self-proclaimed wellness guru Arianna Huffington has a slew of suggestions on this front, including putting physical distance between your bed and your smartphone. Blogger Andrew Sullivan has likewise shared a cautionary tale of the perils of technology overload. And Catherine Steiner Adair, author of The Big Disconnect and a clinical psychologist, has outlined ways to unplug at key moments—like when your kids need your attention.

Here’s one more idea: Use France’s bold move to jumpstart a conversation with managers about work-life ground rules. Even outside of France, the new law should spark  much-needed conversations about workplace flexibility, and what’s expected of employees after-hours, says Anna Cox, a professor at University College London. 

“For some people, they want to work for two hours every evening, but want to be able to switch off between 3pm and 5pm when they pick their kids up and are cooking dinner,” Cox told the AFP. The devil is in defining les détails.