clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

France’s ‘right to disconnect’ is a nice idea, but it’s also pretty vague

New law aims to combat employee burnout by limiting off-hours emails

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Lengthy vacations and short work weeks have long been staples of life in France, but technology has made it increasingly difficult for employees to leave their jobs behind when they head home. Smartphones and laptops have blurred the line between professional and personal spheres, raising health concerns that have prompted the government to take action.

Under a law that went into effect on January 1st, employees at some French companies now have the “right to disconnect” from their jobs once they leave the office. The measure aims to mitigate burnout and stress by redrawing a clearer line between work and home. Some businesses have already put new policies in place; others anticipate future negotiations with employees. But the law does not ban out-of-hours emails altogether, and its vague language has left some wondering whether it will do much to change an increasingly plugged-in culture.

The provision stems from a 2015 report, commissioned by the Ministry of Labor, which found that the spread of mobile technology has made it difficult to strike a healthy work-life balance, leading to fatigue and burnout. Another survey published last year found that 12 percent of French salaried employees suffer from burnout, while a separate survey found that 37 percent regularly use email and other work-related technologies outside of working hours.

Growing concern over burnout led lawmakers to ratify the right to disconnect as part of a contentious labor bill that led to widespread protests last year. (The provision was one of the few points of agreement on the bill.) The measure requires companies to develop a framework for limiting after-work messages, though it does not explicitly call for shutting down after-hours emails altogether. “The law does not say that employees, for instance, have a right to disconnect at 6PM,” says Anaïs Stoquart, a Paris-based business lawyer. “It’s not that kind of law.”

Instead, companies with more than 50 employees will have to negotiate with unions over how to limit digital intrusions into their private lives. That could include technical solutions, such as disabling reply-all emails after a certain hour, or it could be a more loosely defined company policy. If an agreement isn’t reached, companies will have to create a charter that establishes workers’ out-of-hours rights. Notably, the law does not call for any sanctions against companies that fail to abide by it.

Nicolas Rouland, a Paris-based lawyer who specializes in labor issues, says the email law could be used to claim additional damages in cases filed against employers — if someone is forced to work more than 35 hours in a week, for instance — though he describes it as more of a “political” measure that remains vaguely defined.

“Concretely, it will be very difficult to put in place,” Rouland says. “How can you forbid employees from checking their mail on the weekend or on vacation? What controls could the employers implement? I don’t see much.”

Some large companies have already taken steps to reduce out-of-hours workloads. Axa, a French insurance company, no longer requires employees to reply to emails sent outside of office hours, under an agreement with unions signed last year. At La Poste, France’s postal service, emails sent from salaried employees include signatures that point to a similar policy: “If you receive this mail outside of your working hours, you are not obliged to respond.”

Other companies in France and elsewhere in Europe have taken more aggressive measures. In Germany, Volkswagen began blocking out-of-hours emails for some employees in 2012, while Daimler introduced a voluntary system that automatically deletes emails received over holidays. French IT company Atos banned internal email outright in 2011, with CEO Thierry Breton saying that the volume of messaging had begun “encroaching into our personal lives.”

Yet some are reluctant to impose hard email bans, particularly at international companies that operate across several time zones. Solvay, a Belgian chemical company with offices in more than 50 countries, introduced new email guidelines for its French employees last year, urging them to not send emails on holidays or off-hours except in urgent cases. Jean-Christophe Sciberras, head of industrial relations and social innovation at Solvay, says the company saw a “strong” decline in weekend emails since adopting the policy, and has since expanded it to offices in other countries.

Sciberras acknowledges that Solvay’s employee union may seek tighter email restrictions under the new law. And although he cannot guarantee a complete ban on out-of-hours emails, he says the company is willing to adopt policies that would protect employees’ rights to disconnect. “Under this law, the vision of Solvay is that nobody can be punished for not answering an email outside of working hours,” Sciberras said in a phone interview. “Nobody can be punished by management for not seeing an email at 11PM.”

Whether employees will actually want to disconnect is another question. A 2015 survey cited by proponents of the law found that 62 percent of workers want tighter regulations on digital tools used in the workplace. But others, like Alexandra Chiaramonti, say completely disconnecting would be unrealistic in certain jobs. Chiaramonti, who works at a startup in Paris, says she likes the new law “in theory,” though she thinks it would be “impossible” to fully implement at an international company. “Otherwise, you’re just wasting time and not doing your job,” she says.

She also enjoys the flexibility that mobile technology affords her — even if it involves bringing more work into her private life. “It works both ways,” Chiaramonti says. “In a way, yes, you become a slave to your phone, but at the same time it’s much easier to say: you know what? I’m expecting a delivery today so I’m going to work at home. So it comes with good and bad, I guess.”

Patrick Thiebart, a Paris-based employment lawyer, describes the right to disconnect as a “soft law,” insofar as it lacks an enforcement mechanism and specific measures for companies to follow. But he says it would have been unrealistic to enforce a stricter law across companies of varying sizes and in different sectors. Beginning negotiations between management and workers could at least lead to cultural changes that, in Thiebart’s view, would ultimately benefit companies and their employees.

“For companies, an employee is wasting time checking their mail or SMS,” Thiebart says, adding: “There is a time for connection, there is a time for disconnection. You cannot be connected all the time.”