A new ‘Right to Disconnect’ law that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017 gives French employees a qualified legal right to ignore work emails outside of normal business hours.
Designed to reduce work-related stress and decrease employee burnout, the law requires companies with 50 or more employees to develop policies with their workers that limit work-related technology use after hours.
UConn School of Business professor Lucy Gilson, head of the management department, and business law professor Robert Bird, the Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics, reflect on the new law and its implications for employees and businesses.
How will this new law work?
Bird: The new French law has been billed as a ‘right to disconnect,’ but the restrictions on employer off-work contacts are not absolute. The new rule applies only to companies with 50 or more employees, thus excluding large numbers of workers at small- or medium-size firms. Covered firms are required to negotiate email guidelines with their employees. Employers must also regulate email use to ensure employees are able to possess time away from the office. If employers and employees cannot agree on an appropriate policy, then the employer is obligated to publish a charter that regulates when employees can disconnect.
Is this a victory for employees?
Gilson: Champagne, haute couture, soft cheese, and now the “right to disconnect” should be added to the list of things we import from France! Almost daily we read a headline telling us that today, more than ever before, people are working longer hours, inseparably connected to their mobile devices, stressed, burned out, and overworked.
Research suggests that constantly working increases stress, and has led many companies, such as Google, to hire Mindfulness Officers to help employees unwind and clear their minds. So yes, no longer having to sleep with your iPhone is probably a good thing!
Bird: There are certainly benefits to the new law. Email and other technology has been characterized as an ‘electronic leash’ that tethers employees to their professional lives. This new law alleviates the cognitive load that employees suffer when responding to a work task on personal time. Interruptions at home have a psychological cost. They disrupt the relaxation and recovery process that is necessary for work-life balance. Studies in medical and leisure journals have found that an employee’s inability to separate from work for a significant period of time is associated with increased fatigue, sleep disorders, and even cardiovascular disease.
But is it good for business?
Gilson: There are tremendous organizational benefits that also could ensue from employees being able to disconnect. Over the past decade, correlated highly with the advent of the smartphone, employees are now connected and able to work from anywhere at any time. Technology has allowed for a 24/7 work week. But what has evolved is a culture of “busy.” Busy often entails doing what can be crossed off the list, the little tasks and putting out every “fire,” rather than thinking long term, strategizing, planning, and responding to the truly important issues.
Creativity research tells us that big ideas need incubation, time during which they can evolve. So while disconnecting may be good for employees, it may also have some tremendous organizational benefits as well.
Bird: The French law is not without costs for business. The French employment system is already highly regulated in favor of the employee. French workers receive discharge protections, sick leave, and vacation benefits virtually unheard of in the U.S. private sector. These benefits come at a cost, as employers must pay employees what the law mandates and slow operations to meet the personal needs of employees. Already expensive by U.S. standards, this makes the hiring of French workers even more so. A possible result could be higher unemployment and reduced productivity. That being said, a refreshed and happy employee is also a productive employee. An employee who feels respected by her employer may be more willing to invest her time and effort to advance a firm’s long-term interests.
Is it possible to change a habit so embedded in our work culture?
Gilson: Management theory tells us that for changes to work, we need to align our desired behaviors with organizational rewards. A classic article published by Steven Kerr in 1975 was titled, “The Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B” – and this holds just as true now as it did 45 years ago. If employees are really going to disconnect, then organizational rewards and incentives need to be aligned so that speed of response, or time away from work, are no longer recognized as markers of success or failure. Our reward-and-incentive structure needs to be such that employees are not going to be penalized if they do not respond to a work email on Saturday, or take more than two hours to reply to a text sent at 7 p.m.
We have all heard the stories of people who leave a jacket on the back of their chair at night so people think they are the last one in the office and the first to arrive – and these stories fuel the belief that long hours equate to productivity, improved performance, and overall success.
Will the U.S. embrace a similar policy?
Bird: In the U.S., private sector employees have some of the weakest employment protections in the developed world. Firms can discharge employees for a wide range of reasons and without notice. Federal law does not guarantee disconnect protections, sick leave, or vacation leave, and is unlikely to do so in the future. U.S. firms may be more productive in comparison to their French counterparts, but likely do so at a cost of a stressed-out personal life that is constantly interrupted by work demands.
Such demands can weaken the social and family fabric of workers, resulting in greater family stress, medical problems, and related issues. When families struggle or fall apart when they cannot keep up with their employment obligations, it is society that ultimately pays the price. This French law represents one way to safeguard the private lives of workers, which are increasingly being invaded by electronic media.
Professor Lucy Gilson is department head of the School of Business’ management department; Professor Robert Bird teaches business law and holds the Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics.